Thursday, July 17, 2014

Close to home

Last Saturday afternoon while my children were searching the stacks for books to check out, I was at the Rogers Park branch of the Chicago Public Library, putting the finishing touches on my last blog post on gun violence in Chicago. At the same time a few blocks away, a young photographer named Wil Lewis was walking through the neighborhood toward Devon Avenue to catch a bus. My kids and I left the library around 3:10, precisely the time the meter would run out on my parked car. We headed south on Clark Street, passing Devon Avenue around 3:15 on our way south to the Loop. According to police, at approximately 3:20, as Lewis stood at the bus stop at Devon and Glenwood, a few blocks from where we had just passed, Eric Vaughn, a member of a street gang known as the Conservative Vice Lords, was driving around the neighborhood with some associates, allegedly looking for trouble. They found it in the vicinity of where Lewis was standing, as members of another gang were walking down the street. One of Vaughn's associates allegedly expressed his eagerness to shoot one of the members of the rival gang. Vaughn then allegedly handed his associate a gun telling him to "Wet up that tee shirt," gangspeak for shoot the motherfucker. The associate got out of the car and started shooting. It was reported that ten rounds were fired at the members of the rival street gang. He hit none of them, but he did manage to hit Wil Lewis in the back. I'm still not clear if the shooter mistook Lewis for a gang member or if the 28 year old photographer just got in the way of a bullet, it now hardly matters. Lewis, an innocent bystander, was taken to the hospital just a few blocks from our home, where he died an hour later.

He left behind his wife and two parents who live in Wisconsin.

I first heard of the shooting Sunday morning on a Rogers Park Facebook page. Later in the day I received an community e-mail from the office our alderman, Joe Moore, who witnessed the event. He wrote how shaken up he continued to be about seeing the gunman whom the alderman described as a teenager, chasing a group of people while shooting. Moore described the humbling experience of returning to the scene to assist in the cleanup of the blood stains on the sidewalk.

The original reports stated that all parties involved in the shooting were gang members. Unsettling as it was to have such a violent act take place so close to where we had been only minutes before, I think every city resident feels some sense of relief, however fleeting, upon learning that a shooting victim was engaged in criminal activity; rightly or not, we feel that he had it coming, live by the sword, die by the sword, and all that. Callous as it may be, if you live in a big city you eventually become numbed to the banality of evil that is street violence; those of us removed from the world of gangs and guns don't feel particularly threatened by gang murders in general, as they don't normally effect us.

That tenuous feeling of calm was shattered on Monday when I learned the victim was an innocent bystander. It could just has easily have been me I thought, or much worse, my children.

Words cannot express the pain and sorrow I feel for Wil Lewis and his family. A young, promising life snuffed out stupidly, by people who have no regard for any life other than their own. I mourn for my city which has been suffering from too much violence brought about by the abject stupidity of too many guns available too easily, gangs fighting to the death over insignificant pieces of turf, people who have absolutely no intention of doing the right thing as they bring children into this world,  politicians more interested in pointing fingers than legislating and making a real difference, the list goes on and on.

And I especially mourn for the children of Eric Vaughn, two already born, and one on the way. I pray to God they they won't grow up following in their father's footsteps. Unfortunately too many prayers like these go unanswered every day in this city. This morning in another e-mail from the alderman's office, I learned of yet another shooting in Rogers Park. Last night, at about the same time I began to write this post, a car drove up to two men walking on the sidewalk. Shots were fired from the car and both men were hit.

That incident took place on the block where my son's best friend lives.

Lord have Mercy.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lots of questions, few answers

Try as we might to avoid the issue, we could all see it coming. A long, summer holiday weekend would certainly mean that the news would be filled with stories about people getting shot in Chicago. Like clockwork, the reports came in hour by hour, and when all was said and done, over this past Fourth of July weekend, 82 people were shot in this city, and 16 of them died. While the murder-per-capita numbers are higher in other cities, for the past few years more people in Chicago have been murdered than in any other city making this by some accounts, the murder capital of the country. This fact has not been lost in cities coast to coast as this article from the Los Angeles Times and this article from last year in the New York Times point out.

Not surprising, the spin doctors on both sides of the gun issue are having a field day with this one. The mayor and the police commissioner, along with advocates of gun control claim that there are far too many guns in this city and that the laws currently in place are not adequate to protect the men, women, and children of Chicago. The gun crowd claims that Chicago already has the toughest gun laws in the country, which is true, so obviously there is no correlation between gun laws and gun violence.

Since I'm not a person who necessarily believes in better life through legislation, I'm not so naive as to think that making new laws alone will make the problem of gun violence go away. I even believe there is some logic to the old and tired axiom toted out by the gun crowd every time some nut with a gun goes on a rampage, or a dismal new homicide record is set. Just as a $50,000 Steinway grand piano on the stage of a great concert hall would make no music without someone there to play it, a gun sitting in a drawer harms no one if it is left alone.

You can kill someone with a knife, a broken bottle, or an automobile, but no one is suggesting we ban those things. That much is true but so is this: a concert pianist can make music with a kazoo, a Jew's harp or an armpit but chances are, a piano would be much more effective.

In the end, these arguments are pointless; the relationship between guns and people is obvious. To put it simply, a gun is a tool for the expressed purpose of maiming and killing living creatures, including human beings. As such, it is a very effective tool.

For better or worse, our constitution guarantees our right to own guns, that much is certain. As long as I can remember, we've debated the extent to which the Founding Fathers intended that liberty to reach. The people with the most liberal (in the strictest definition of that term) interpretation of the Second Amendment have recently won victories giving us the freedom to do as we please with guns, rights that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

As I pointed out in a previous postnever in my wildest dreams did I expect to see "no guns allowed" signs posted in front of establishments all across the city. Those signs have become a reality here because the courts in their infinite wisdom have insisted that Illinois lift its restriction on carrying concealed weapons. Seemingly never satisfied, the signs have become a point of contention with the gun folks who claim they won't enter a business, library, or museum that displays one because criminals obviously would ignore the signs, and being out-gunned, law abiding citizens such as themselves would be put at a disadvantage.

Thirty years ago, the sale and possession of handguns was a widely debated topic and municipalities including Chicago, put laws on the books that prevented the sale and possession of the weapons whose only purpose was to kill people. As the courts have recently overturned those laws as unconstitutional, the stakes are much higher and we are now debating whether people should be allowed to purchase assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill several people at one time. The gun folks are winning that battle too.

Which leads me to believe that today, the lunatics are running the asylum.

Gun advocates spout out many arguments for their cause; most of them have enough holes to fill the Albert Hall. My favorite goes something like this:

Gun laws only prevent honest, law abiding citizens from owning and carrying firearms. The only way we can solve the problem of bad guys with guns is to put guns into the hands of the good guys.

In other words, contrary to the expressed statements of the mayor and the police superintendent of Chicago, no we don't have too many guns in this city, in fact we have too few. The logic behind the second sentence of this argument is that the bad guys would be so intimidated by the thought that the good guys might be packing heat, that they'd leave the good guys alone. But as we've seen in Chicago over the past several eons, the lion's share of gun violence here involves bad guys shooting at other bad guys. This could actually be a good thing in a pure Darwinian sense as theoretically, the bad guys would eventually kill each other off, leaving only good guys in our fair city. Unfortunately, most of the bad guys in our city turn out to be really bad shots, and more often than not, they miss their intended targets, i.e.: other bad guys, and hit good guys instead. One of those good guys was a Chicago Public School teacher named Betty Howard who was shot a few weeks ago while she sat inside a real estate office where she worked a second job. I'm not sure how having a gun in her possession at the time she was killed would have saved Ms. Howard who was caught unawares by the gunfight taking place outside her office, but I have no doubt that the gun crowd will come up with some explanation.

I also don't buy the idea that gun laws prevent "honest, law abiding citizens" from owning guns. The purchase, possession and the use of fireworks is strictly illegal in the State of Illinois, yet those laws don't prevent tens of thousands of otherwise law abiding folks from staging their own private Fourth of July fireworks displays, some with enough fire power to make a full scale re-enactment of the invasion of Omaha Beach look timid. Back in the day when owning and carrying handguns was illegal in this town, I knew people, otherwise decent, law abiding folks, who did just that.

Now of course, thanks to the courts, it's perfectly legal for those folks and just about anyone else to own a handgun in Chicago and carry a concealed weapon in Illinois. The courts have also thrown out Chicago's ban on gun shops although as yet, none have opened. Not to worry Chicagoans, you don't have to go very far to legally purchase a gun, just go across the street into Riverdale or another suburb that borders the city to stock your private arsenal. If you have a troublesome past and don't pass the perfunctory background check, you can always have a friend or relative buy one for you. If that's too much trouble, getting a gun illegally in this city is ridiculously easy and if by chance the police catch you, it's unlikely you'll get much more than a slap on the wrist. Watch out though, you still can't legally carry those guns openly in this state, but the way legislators and judges have been spreading their legs for the gun lobby these days, it should not be very long before we see thousands of Wyatt Earp wannabes walking around town sporting holsters and ammo from their belts.

Since guns don't do the actual killing, none of this should bother us, it's the people we need to worry about right?

I say that facetiously, but only slightly. The reality is that while guns are readily available all over the country, recurrent incidents of gun violence occur in very predictable places like Chicago. Taking that point further, the vast majority of gun violence in Chicago takes place in very specific parts of the city.

The communities that suffer the most from violence have a few other things in common: high rates of poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, single parent families, poor performing schools, few opportunities for advancement or escape. A great many people in the communities that experience high crime rates were themselves victims of violent crime, and/or had loved ones whose lives were destroyed by violence. In my mind, the most desperate and tragic consequence of the endless cycle of poverty and violence in these communities is the loss of hope for the future.

We can endlessly point fingers. Some people blame poverty and the lack of economic opportunity on racism. Others blame the government, welfare, and the poor people themselves. Perhaps the blame can be spread around equally, but the one issue I single out above the others is the dissolution of the family. Here is an excerpt from a piece I wrote a few years ago, slightly altered from the original:
I don't have the answer for why people commit senseless crimes but I suspect that unlike many criminals, I had two parents who were devoted to me, let me know every day that I was important, blessed me with an enthusiastic faith in education and in the future, and especially taught me right from wrong, My parents came down on me as hard on the little things as the big ones, teaching me that it was just as wrong to steal a newspaper, (as I once had a penchant for doing), as it was to steal a Mercedes Benz. In short, they taught me that my integrity was the most valuable thing I had. Given my parents' scrupulous sense of values and ethics, the idea of intentionally causing harm to another human being never crossed my mind. My wife and I have tried hard to pass along those same values to our children.
I come from a privileged background, not because I am white, or because we had a little money in our pockets. I was privileged because I had two parents, a mother and a father who deeply cared about me, who spent quality time with me, and who taught me that if I worked hard enough, the sky was the limit. Now of course many people thrive despite having less than ideal circumstances in their childhood. But that is a much tougher road to travel, especially living in a community where bad circumstances are the rule not the exception.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that communities where the incidents of poverty and crime are the highest, are filled with children who were not privileged like I was. I think it's very clear that children, especially boys, need positive male role models, preferably their fathers. Too often the role models for young boys in this city are found in the streets. Communities consisting of generations of fatherless families are in my opinion, the greatest social ill facing our society today.

So what can we do?

I don't know how you can legislate families staying together. How can we insure that men who impregnate women take responsibility for themselves, their actions, and for the children they helped create? How on earth can we insist that people who bring children into this world and are incapable of caring for them, take the responsibility to find someone who can?  Or even, God forbid, how do we teach our children that maybe it's not such a bad idea after all to refrain from having sex at least until they are old enough to accept and deal with the consequences? The poverty, violence, inertia, lack of hope, respect, and personal responsibility in our city today I believe are not the disease, they are the symptoms.

Of course it's better to cure the disease than the symptom, but you have to start somewhere, and sometimes the best you can do is alleviate the symptoms first, then go after the root causes.

That brings us back to the guns. As we've seen, it is very difficult to legislate human behavior, but it's not all that hard to legislate guns, if only we had reasonable people on both sides willing to compromise.

The Second Amendment isn't going anywhere and with it, neither is our right to own guns. We seem to forget that along with any right we are guaranteed comes the implicit admonition that we use that freedom responsibly. No liberty guaranteed by our Constitution, not even the freedom of speech, is absolute. It seems the only people in our country who will fight to the death (usually someone else's), to make one particular liberty unconditional, are the extremist gun fanciers who cry foul at the mere mention of any reasonable form of controlling the sale, distribution and use of deadly weapons.

The drastic liberalization of gun laws in the past thirty years has resulted in a tremendous increase in the production and sale of guns in the United States. It is far easier to obtain a gun today than it was back then. As a consequence, more people are getting shot in Chicago than a generation ago. The only reason there are fewer deaths now than say 1974 when 970 people were murdered in this city, is because of advancements in medical technology. A police officer friend I just spoke with put it bluntly: many people who would have died from their wounds in 1974 are back on the streets today in a few weeks, reeking more havoc.

There are certainly responsible gun owners out there who pose little or no threat to society. There are many more who for whatever reason, have no business whatsoever being anywhere near a gun.

Pure and simple, why is it such a big deal to make it a little harder for those people to get one?

I just don't get it.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and...

Today's the Fourth of July and what could be more appropriate and patriotic then to spend the day with my son by the telly, watching the World Cup. Why not? This country like it or not, is a country of immigrants, people whose relatives if not themselves came from elsewhere. And the game of choice in that nether-region called someplace else, at least in those someplace elses where they don't call it soccer, is in fact, soccer.

Now I can't think of anything more pointless than comparing the relative merits of one sport against another. Yet every four years, it has been a ritual in this country to compare the world's most popular spectator sport, with our own most popular sports, namely baseball and the game only we refer to as football. Every time the World Cup rolls around, we're subjected to the rantings and ravings of (soocer)football lovers about how their game is so much superior to the two American games because of its continuous activity opposed to the seemingly endless periods of standing around talking, scratching and spitting, only occasionally broken up by fleeting moments of action. On the other side are the Americans who demand our sports are better because their players don't spend all there time running around trying, and usually failing to kick a ball into a net.

In other words, each side is arguing that the other guy's sport is boring. Of course there are loads of people who couldn't care less because to them, ALL sports are boring.

I would argue that you get out of any sport, just like anything else in life, exactly what you put into it. If you've grown up with a game, played it, and/or ever rooted for a particular team at some point in your life, chances are you will appreciate that sport as an adult. You'll understand the intricacies of the game, appreciate the tactics and strategies of the players and coaches, and revel in the skill and mastery of those performing at the absolute highest level of their profession.

If none of the above applies, then a sport is nothing more than some guys kicking a ball around a field, a guy throwing a ball at another guy who's trying to hit it with a stick, or a bunch of guys trying to beat the crap out of each other.

The best thing I ever read about soccer was a beautiful piece called: If God Existed, He'd be a Solid Midfielder*. It was written by a fellow named Aleksandar Hemon from Sarajevo, who found himself stranded in Chicago as he was visiting the city exactly at the moment when civil war broke out in his country, Bosnia-Herzegovina. One of his great passions was playing soccer, and not being able to play regularly while living in a foreign city left him out "at sea, mentally and physically." Fortunately this being a great soccer town if you know where to look,  Hemon found a regular pick-up game along the lake in Uptown which was organized by a UPS driver from Ecuador, a fellow by the name of "German." German set up the field, the foul lines, goals, and distributed jerseys to all the participants. He even set up flags representing the nations competing in the World Cup. Since he was middle aged at the time, German would seldom play, unless they were short of players, but was the full time referee. Soccer is truly the one international language as the divergent nationalities of the players in that pickup game attested. The regular players of that pickup game came from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, Columbia,  Belize, Brazil, Jamaica, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Senegal, Ertirea, Ghana, Cameroon, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, France Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam, and Korea. One the goalies was from Tibet.

This collected assembly of nations on American soil is not to the liking of everyone, especially commentators like Ann Coulter who last week wrote a cheeky article blasting soccer, essentially comparing Americans' quadrennial interest in the game and the team that represents them, to nothing less than the moral degradation of an entire nation. This set off a maelstrom of silly articles slamming Coulter and her piece, calling her xenophobic, claiming she knows nothing about the game, and defending a game that didn't need defending. Of course that response was Coulter's intention all along and her detractors unwittingly played right into her hands by giving her article way more intention than it deserved.

Anyway, the referee and game organizer, the Ecuadoran named German eventually retired from UPS and moved down to Florida. Without a credible successor, the Uptown pickup game dissolved. Hemon, the author of the piece, found another game in a different neighborhood, this one comprised mostly of Americans and assimilated Europeans and Latinos. He found there was something lacking in this game, the level of passion he was used to simply was not there. Illustrating the difference between the international game and the American game, many times he was admonished by the Americans for his intense style of play. They'd say to him: "Relax, it's only exercise." His response to them was : "...go and run on a fucking treadmill and let me play the game the way the game's supposed to be played."

In a particularly beautiful passage, Hemon described an incident that took place during one of the Uptown games. In typical Chicago fashion, the temperature dropped about thirty degrees and a rain storm "started at the other end of the field and then moved across it towards the far goal, steadily advancing, like a German World Cup team." The power of the storm forced the players to abandon the pitch and make a beeline for Gernams's van. All the players that is except for the goalie and the rest of his Tibetan friends who continued to play in the rain...
as if running in slow motion on the surface of a placid river. The ground is giving off vapour, the mist touching their ankles, at at moments it seems that they're levitating a few inches above the ground, untouched by the flood. 
One of the other players and his wife...
are watching them with perfect calm, as if nothing could ever harm them. They see one of the Tibetans scoring a goal, the rain-heavy ball sliding between the goalie's hands. The goalie is untroubled, smiing, and from where I am, he could be the Dalai Lama himself.
Hemon concludes this passage by describing absolute perfection. He is writing specifically about soccer but it could apply to any game or in fact the perfect moment in any field of endeavor:
...the moment of transcendence that might be familiar to those who practice sports with other people; the moment arising from the chaos of the game, when all your teammates occupy the ideal position on the field; the universe seems to be arranged by a meaningful will that is not yours; the moment that perishes - as moments tend to - when you complete the pass; and all you have left is a vague, physical, orgasmic memory of the instant you were completely connected with the world around you.
It may be only a game but we all should be so lucky to experience such a moment.

*Aleksander Harmon, "If God Existed, He'd be a Solid Midfielder", Granata, ©2009, Granta Publications

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Florence vs. Atlanta

Florence, left, and an Atlanta highway interchange compared in photos of the same scale
This comparison of two satellite photographs has been making the rounds over the past few years. It originally appeared here on a blog post written by Steve Mouzon. We see from the two photos that an unnamed highway interchange in Atlanta takes up roughly the same amount of space as the entire city of Florence.

Despite his blog's objectives spelled out in its title: Original Green: Common-Sense, Plain-Spoken Sustainability, Mouzon argues against the 20th/21st Century American paradigm of devoting so much space to the automobile in strictly economic terms:
Busy streets, for almost all of human history, created the greatest real estate value because they delivered customers and clients to the businesses operating there. This in turn cultivated the highest tax revenues in town, both from higher property taxes and from elevated sales taxes. But you can't set up shop on the side of an expressway.
In another blog post that revived the above photographs, Lloyd Alter writes this:
You could spend days walking the streets of Florence... and find three hundred and fifty thousand residents shopping, eating, selling wonderful leather goods, going to fabulous galleries and palaces and museums...
Because of the need for speed, Atlanta has a great big expensive hole the size of Florence that does very little beside getting a small fraction of Atlanta workers to their jobs a bit sooner, barring any accidents.
Compelling as these two photographs are, finding any real meaning behind them is not as easy as it might seem on the surface. With two entirely different cities built in different times in different cultures, you could spin this comparison any number of ways. Florence is the size it is precisely because the automobile was about 400 years from being invented during the Renaissance when the city took its current shape. Had the Tuscan city been planned in another technological era, Florence certainly would be a much different place. The same is true of Atlanta.

Perhaps the most prescient words I've ever read about the automobile came from the author Booth Tarkington in his 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. Responding to the comment, "Automobiles are a useless nuisance", the character Eugene Morgan, himself an early pioneer in the automobile industry, takes a philosophical view of his life's work:
I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization - that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure, But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of the automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles had no business to be invented.
The urbanologist Jane Jacobs argued that it was not the automobile per se that altered civilization, but the way we designed our cities in order to accommodate it. The thriving street culture of Florence as seen in the photo and described by Lloyd Alter above, compared to the relative emptiness of area surrounding the Atlanta highway is a perfect illustration of her point. With the exception of the River Arno, one can explore on foot practically every nook and cranny of Florence as I can personally attest. I don't know Atlanta that well but I've certainly experienced similar landscapes as the one pictured on the right. Super-highways create no-man's lands of inhospitable landscapes divided by impenetrable borders. It's unlikely that anyone would choose to get from any given point A to point B in the area shown the photo on the right on foot as the journey would prove to be not only hazardous, but highly unsatisfying. Boring streets Jacobs argued, made for boring cities that people would ultimately move away from. Her prediction sadly became reality as we have seen time and time again in great cities across America.

The city of Florence today does not exclude cars, it just puts them in their place. On the other hand, Atlanta and similar cities, continue to put cars front and center.

I'll get on the bandwagon and spin this story in the direction of my own biases by using two instances that I've sited before, one personal, one taken from the news:

My parents retired to a community in greater Phoenix, another sprawling city where car is king. They had a very nice life and my wife and I greatly enjoyed our visits, in fact we were married there. My father's health eventually deteriorated and as my mother was caring for him in his final days, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration which rendered her legally blind, unable to drive. Not having something as basic as a grocery store closer than two miles from home, and no public transportation whatsoever, my fiercely independent mother could only rely on the kindness of her friends and family for so long. She ended up moving back to Chicago where at eighty-something she continues to live a very independent life, relying on public transportation to get her to the places too far away to walk. Ironically, "The Valley of the Sun", a region that draws retired people by the score, was unable to provide a sustainable life for her once she could no longer drive.

In Atlanta earlier this year, a mere two inches of snow completely incapacitated the city. Commuters were stranded in their cars for up to 24 hours as the city's three snow plows were no match for the unusual weather event. One only has to look at the two photographs above to understand why Atlanta was in such a sorry state. It might take an hour to transverse the distance from one end of the area represented by each photograph to the other on foot. Despite the two cities being somewhat comparable in population, that distance represents the entirety of Florence but only a small fraction of the average commute in Atlanta. I have no idea how well Florence is equipped to handle snow, but I'm sure two inches of the white stuff would hardly incapacitate a town where you can walk everywhere.

Time and time again we have seen how putting all of our eggs in the same technological basket is not a good idea. Technology is a wonderful thing, that is until it stops working as planned. Anyone who has gone through a power outage of any length of time can testify to that fact. The internal combustion engine and the automobile, great, earth shattering inventions as they may be, still have their limitations. The real question we must ask ourselves in the 21st century is this:

Are we to control our technology or are we going to let it control us?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Brush with greatness

There were two tables of guests at our wedding rehearsal dinner almost fifteen years ago. At one table sat the parents of the bride and groom and their friends. After dinner, the guests at that table, commenting on the raucous goings from across the room, lamented that they sat at the wrong table. The topic of conversation that caused the commotion at our table was this: personal encounters with celebrities. As you might expect, the most memorable events involving genuine face-to-face contact with well known people came at the beginning of our conversation. The dinner became really fun however once the big names got out of the way and we began to search our memory banks to "top" each other with what turned out to be less and less meaningful encounters with more and more obscure celebrities. Perhaps the highlight, or the nadir depending on your point of view, came when my friend and I discovered that his mother and my maternal uncle, were both high school classmates of the late comedian known as "Lonesome" George Gobel.

My wife-to-be remained silent during most of the dinner. I knew why she kept to herself; it would have ground the entire conversation to a screeching halt as her story of meeting a famous celebrity was head and shoulders above all the rest. As the dinner was coming to an end and our friends and family members couldn't scrape the bottom of the barrel any farther than poor old Lonesome George, I asked my bride to recount the tale of her most memorable celebrity encounter. Grudgingly she told of how one day she and her friend who at the time were working at an upscale Chicago restaurant, were invited to spend the evening with Jack Nicholson. With typical modesty, my wife claims that it was her friend that the movie star was interested in but I'm sure he was quite happy to spend the evening with not one, but two lovely young women. Before your imagination runs wild, the evening my wife assures me, was spent watching the French Open, and discussing philosophy and New Wave Cinema. In the end I'm happy to report, Mr. Nicholson was the perfect gentleman as he bid a fond adieu to the ladies sans shenanigans, when they told him it was time to leave.

Anyway that's my wife's story, she's sticking to it and I'm perfectly content to believe it.

It's no secret that our fascination with celebrities comes from the fact that all of us at one time or other, dreams of one day becoming famous, to have the world as they say, at our feet. Like any typical American boy, I once dreamed of being a great athlete. That dream was brought down to earth one day as I was riding my bike up Michigan Avenue and saw a large group of people gathered on the sidewalk and spilling out into the street. I had to see what was going on and it turned out the crowd was gazing intently into the window of a closed shoe store. Inside the store was Michael Jordan, presumably buying shoes. It dawned on me that living in a fish bowl as he did, was not all that it was cracked up to be. The guy couldn't even buy a pair of shoes without extreme measures taken to insure his safety and privacy. From that moment on, I no longer wanted to "be like Mike."

When I was a teenager, I set my sights upon being an artist. My other uncle, the brother of my father, was my inspiration. I first met my Uncle Jenda when he came to this country after emigrating from Czechoslovakia in early 1968. Jenda and my other relatives could not have been more different.  He had traveled extensively, and was uncompromisingly independent. He lived life exactly as he saw fit. In his case that meant residing in a cell-like one room apartment, with the bathroom down the hall. Like any artist, he wanted his work to be shown, but he refused to create work to please other people. He could not care less what others thought of him. As an adolescent, Jenda was hands down the coolest person I knew.

All these memories came flooding into my head these past few weeks as I just had my own brush with greatness, the honor and privilege of working with Czech artist Josef Koudelka. In all my years of working in the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, I have met many great photographers, some of them personal heroes of mine. Koudelka is both those things to be sure, yet on a very personal level, much much more.

Koudelka has had a long, illustrious career producing works that combine a strong personal vision with a powerful sense of humanity. Unlike the cool reserve and distance of most contemporary street photography, Koudleka's photographs of people, just like the photographer, are filled with passion; they are intimate works that could only be made by a man who spent a great deal of time, and in some cases, even lived with his subjects.

Koudelka's first monumental work was a series of photographs made in the early sixties of Gypsies living in Romania and the former Czechoslovakia. The original prints from his first exhibition of that work in Prague, have been assembled together for the first time in forty years and are currently on display in Koudelka's first American retrospective exhibition currently on view at the Art Institute. The sub-title of the exhibition, Nationality Doubtful, refers to the period after the creation of the original Gypsy pictures.

It was a twist of fate that made Josef Koudelka for a very brief period a photojournalist, and for a very long time, a man without a country. Koudelka arrived in Prague on August 19th, 1968, after a trip photographing in Romania. As it so happened, on the very next day, the brief period of the experiment of "Socialism with a human face" known as the Prague Spring, came to an abrupt end as Czechoslovakia was invaded by troops of the Warsaw Pact nations under the leadership of the Soviet Union. Armed with a 35mm Exacta still camera and hundreds of feet of bulk-loaded East German movie film, Josef documented the invasion from the streets of Prague, as citizens of that city confronted Russian tanks with nothing more than their fists and their rage. His photographs, for all intents and purposes the only visual documentation we have of that tragic event, (which from a distance, I can still remember almost as if it happened yesterday), show the emboldened public demonstratively expressing their outrage, as well as the perplexed faces of the soldiers, few of them over twenty, who were told by their superiors that they would be welcomed into the city as liberating heroes. Placing himself in harm's way, Koudelka was as much a part of the citizen's revolt as a documenter of it. Not only did he shoot pictures of unarmed individuals on top of Russian tanks, but at times he too was on top of those tanks as some of his pictures testify.

Koudelka spent the weeks after the invasion processing his film and printing the negatives. The prints were smuggled out of the country and fell into the hands of the Magnum photo agency. They were published shortly thereafter, first in the London Sunday Times magazine, then all over the world under the credit line of "P.P." (Prague Photographer). Koudelka high-tailed it out of Czechoslovakia in 1970 by seeking a three month work visa, then applying for political asylum in England. He would not return to his home country until the Velvet Revolution, some twenty years later, when he would finally claim authorship of the invasion photographs.

During his years in exile and continuing to this day, Koudelka has traveled the world making pictures. For much of his career, his was a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on grants and the kindness of strangers (and friends) to keep him going. He once said:
For 17 years I never paid any rent. Even the Gypsies were sorry for me because they thought I was poorer than them. At night they were in their caravans and I was the guy who was sleeping outside beneath the sky.
It has been a peripatetic existence as well. Koudelka by his own admission never stays in one place very long:
I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind.
Perhaps Koudelka's most evocative and poetic work was produced between 1968 and 1987, culminating in a book appropriately titled Exiles. The book opens with the photographer's most iconic image, a view up a deserted Wenseslaus Square (Vaclavske Namesti) in Prague moments before the invasion. A watch on a borrowed wrist in the foreground marks for eternity the time, (12:22PM) of the impending doom.

The late playwright Vaclav Havel described the period in Czechoslovakia between the invasion and the Velvet Revolution and his own ascendance to the presidency of his country, as a time of great inertia. It was as if the wristwatch in Koudelka's picture stopped functioning at that very moment, and time had stood still.

Unlike his native country, Joseph Koudelka was just getting started in 1968. The pictures from his wandering years found in Exiles are drastically different from his earlier work. No longer were his images exclusively of people. Instead, found objects, discarded little fragments of things that once meant something to someone began to populate his pictures. One picture is of an impromptu meal of Josef's, spread over a copy of the International Herald Tribune. When he did photograph people, rather confronting his subjects head on as in the Gypsy photographs, Koudelka began photographing people from the side or behind. One memorable picture is of a man from behind, as he looks toward a massive hovercraft in the background. Another, an ambiguous photo of several older men in a bunker-like structure, also seen from behind, suggests that these are pictures of wanderers who like himself were in search of something. Perhaps that something is profound. Or perhaps they're just looking for a place to take a pee; life is funny that way.

Death is a recurring theme in Koudelka's work. In one picture, a dead raven is strung up on a clothesline. In a heartbreaking image, a young woman is laid to rest as the lid is placed over her coffin while her grieving mother and family wail in the background. In a most peculiar picture, one that did not make the cut in our exhibit, we are in a room which appears to be a preparation room for a mortuary. An elderly man with sunken eyes reclines on a gurney, looking over at a bier with flowers strewn upon it. In the photo the man appears to be awaiting his turn on the bier.

For the past few decades, Koudelka has almost entirely excluded people form his pictures. Instead, photographing with a panoramic format camera, he has been documenting the hand of man on the landscape. Barriers and borders abound in these pictures. One project represented in book form in the exhibition, depicts the wall in Jerusalem that was built to separate the Palestinian and Jewish communities in that divided city. From his last words in the Art Institute produced video below shot by my friend Bill Foster, you can tell exactly where his sentiments lie.

His most recent work centers around the ruins of ancient civilizations scattered throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Had he only made the invasion photographs, Josef Koudelka's place in history would be secure. As the one piece of visual evidence of that event, the photographs served to bring the acts of a brutal, morally bankrupt regime to the attention of the world. It may not be an overstatement to say that the invasion and Josef's document of it, freezing the moment forever in time, helped contribute to the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.

But in a career that has spanned well over fifty years, Koudelka has produced many distinct bodies of work, all of which hold up to the highest scrutiny. He is the consummate perfectionist, never satisfied with resting upon his laurels, constantly striving to get better and better with each new project. My guess is that if you asked him what his favorite picture is, he would reply, "the next one."

As such he is a constant source of frustration for anyone who has to work with him.

"Who has the bigger ego, the artist or the curator?" he is fond of asking whenever he is in a museum setting. The fact that he feels compelled to ask such a question should give us the answer.

Those of us who struggled for several months putting together his show at the Art Institute were not slightly taken aback when we met with Koudelka and our colleagues from the Getty Museum, the next venue for the show. Josef said: "We will make the next show even better than this one." Sensing that he had stepped on a few toes, Josef added that we all must strive to get better in everything we do, never stay the same.

If you were a film producer casting the role of the quintessential eccentric, difficult artist, Koudleka would fit as the model; it's as if he walked directly out of central casting.

The day his show opened, there was a public event featuring Koudelka, Matt Witkovsky, the curator of the exhibition, and Amanda Maddox from the Getty. Josef got the rock star treatment as the museum's Fullerton Hall was filled to the rafters, SRO with people lining the aisles and sitting on the stairs. He had the crowd eating out of his hands with his typical charm mixed with occasional irascibility. Never one to pull any punches, Josef said exactly what was on his mind, even as it often came at the expense of the two curators sitting beside him.

Had I had known of Josef Koudelka while I was in art school in the late seventies, I certainly would have liked to model my life after his. To this day part of me longs to live the life of an uncompromising artist, completely devoted to his work at the expense of everything else.

Yet as with being like Mike, that's all a fantasy. Koudelka's work consumes him; he eats, sleeps and drinks photography. Fixer flows through his veins; bus, train and plane schedules are his pacemaker. The man brags that he owns only two shirts and continues at 76 years of age to be restless at being in the same place for any period of time. More than twenty years my senior, he can run circles around me.

My life by contrast is consumed by many diverse passions. I have lived in the same city all my life and for the last 13 years, (not coincidentally, the age of my eldest child), have seldom strayed more than couple hundred miles from home. I don't exactly live in the lap of luxury but I live like a millionaire compared to Josef. Contrary to what he says about himself in the Art Institute film, I don't have a trace of his courage either. Meeting Josef Koudelka for the first time, no matter who you are, you are treated as if you have been lifetime friends. The consummate man about town, Josef can converse in several languages. I witnessed him in one conversation with people of at least four different nationalities, speak without any hesitation to each person in his or her own language.

But it was when he spoke Czech to my friend Milan from Prague, that part of my life's history flashed before my eyes. It brought back the long lost conversations of my father and his brother in a language that I cannot speak, yet still remains very much a part of me. Except for Koudelka's great fame and success, he and my late uncle are almost like two peas in a pod.

Koudelka and my friend Milan. They had just met
but you'd think they were bosom buddies.
Koudelka has certainly earned enough money to slow down in his "golden years", but that just doesn't seem to be in the cards. His daughter who lives in Paris (one of three Koudelka children scattered across the globe) joined him on this trip to the States. My colleague asked her what is was like to be Josef's daughter. "He was always working" was her terse response. After he introduced me to his daughter he added: "Imagine having an asshole like me for a father."

During our two weeks together Josef expressed a great deal of genuine interest in my own children whose pictures are prominently displayed above my desk. For a brief moment I had the feeling that my conventional life was as intriguing to him as his spartan, globetrotting, earth-shattering existence was to me.

At the end of his visit, we parted with a great bear hug, exchanging thanks and our mutual respect. Josef left for Prague or Paris or London or wherever his muse would lead him. I left to watch my son play baseball.

That last day as I left for home, it occurred to me that both of us were headed exactly where we belonged.


The Exhibition Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, will run until September 14th in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

After that it will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles where it will be on display from Novermber 11, 2014 until March 22, 2015.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Brouhaha

This city has gone into a tizzy the likes of which we haven't seen since "art lovers" were invited to take a peek up Marilyn Monroe's dress in Pioneer Court a few years ago. Unless you have a fetish for hairpieces, this latest scandal may not be as titillating, but highly entertaining just the same. In case you've been under a rock for the past few weeks, a huge sign bearing the letters T R U M P has been placed on the south facade of the building on the Chicago River known as Trump Tower. Since its conception and realization, Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin has waged a one-man crusade against the sign, and the man whose name happens to be spelled out when you put those letters together, real estate magnate Donald Trump. Since Trump became aware of Kamin's objection to the sign, the two have been involved in a bitter, sometimes comical battle of words that has gone viral, even getting the attention of late night comedian John Stewart. Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago has even jumped into the fray,  lambasting the sign and claiming to begin work on an ordinance that would prevent the construction of similar signs in the future, despite having at least tacitly approved of the sign when plans of it were originally presented to him a few years ago.

From what I can tell, the public reaction seems to favor the mayor and the critic over the Donald. Descriptions I've heard used to describe the sign include: "in poor taste", "an eyesore", "a blight", "an embarrassment", and "schlock". One writer claimed the sign "induced a gag reflex." Some people dabbling in Freudian psychology suggest the size of the sign represents compensation for its owner's small penis. A friend of mine whose office sits at the same level directly across the river from the sign told me: "I'm just pissed that I have to look at that asshole's name every day."

I may be wrong but could it possibly be that people object to Donald Trump more than the sign? Let's say those letters spelled out the names of less controversial, more popular folks in town, names like:

T O E W S, or K A N E, or the most famous resident of Trump's building:

R O S E.

Would the reaction be the same?

How about Chicago literary giants like:

H E C H T, or A L G R E N, B R O O K S, or R O Y K O?

Or the folks we claim as our own who helped make this world a better place:

A D D A M S, R O S E N W A L D,  or W E L L S.

Donald Trump inserting himself into a classic Chicago street scene

I bet even names of local politicians would sit easier than Trump's, say perhaps:

a D A L E Y, or a W A S H I N G T O N, or a B Y R N E for example.

In fact I can think of only one name that might be less tolerated than Trump's. That name would be:

B L A G O J E V I C H.

Could be something about the hair.

After reading this I'm sure you're all on the edge of your seats wondering where I stand on this very important issue. Are you ready? OK here goes:

I don't like the sign.

That's all.

No I don't think it's an affront to the good citizens of our fair city. I don't consider it blight, and since I have no personal knowledge of Mr. Trump's endowment below the belt-line, I have no opinion on that issue either.

In addition to the sign, there are lots of other things I don't like about the built environment of this city, but I would not suggest a law to ban such things. I don't like the building recently built on 73 East Lake street that blocks my once cherished view of the Lincoln Tower from Garland Court. I don't like the building at 444 North Michigan which swallows up the magnificent silhouette of the Wrigley Building. Perhaps the worst building in Chicago is the deplorable Doral Plaza at Michigan and Randolph, a building that would be more at home in your typical edge city built around an airport than in the middle of Chicago with its concentration of great works of architecture. Old timers will remember a time before that sad excuse for a building was built, when there was an enormous Coca-Cola sign on the site. At the south end of Grant Park, directly opposite the Coke sign, there was an equally large Pepsi-Cola sign. In my opinion, those two signs were VASTLY better than what replaced them. Where the Prudential Building now stands, there once was a gigantic Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer sign. OK in that case I prefer the Prudential Building which not only has a large sign of its own, but also a magnificent relief sculpture of the Rock of Gibraltar, the symbol of the company that built and named the building.

Forty years ago, many of the buildings bordering Grant Park along South Michigan Avenue had large signs mounted on their roofs. Most of the buildings of Chicago are not temples, they are manifestations of the commercial entities that built and maintain  them. The signs that advertise the goings on inside those buildings reflect that fact which is form following function at its purest.  I have fond memories of those signs from my childhood and unlike Blair Kamin, I don't think the South Michigan Avenue landscape today necessarily benefits from their absence.

Back to Trump's sign, I do think that it aesthetically detracts from an otherwise fine building. Trump Tower, which I'm certain many (but not Blair Kamin) have blasted simply because of its provenance, is in fact one of my favorite recent buildings in Chicago. The architect Adrian Smith gave us a soaring structure that doesn't overwhelm. It's the second tallest building in Chicago, yet it doesn't seem that, unless you are at a great distance and can judge the relative heights of our four behemoth 1,000 plus foot high buildings together. T.Tower's reflective steel and glass facade looks different at all times of the day and in varying weather conditions. It provides a graceful climax not only to Wabash Avenue from both the south and from the north, but even all the way up in our neck of the woods, Rogers Park, where from twelve miles away the building looks as if Ridge Avenue runs straight into it.

Smith is responsible for a number of high profile projects all over the world. In Chicago, he was the principal architect of the AT&T Corporate Center, NBC Tower, Olympia Center (home of the Neiman Marcus Michigan Avenue Store), as well as creating the master plan for Millennium Park. But he is perhaps most well known as the architect of Burj Kalifa in Dubai, far and away the world's tallest building.

Cropped, with a whole new meaning
Adrian Smith has publicly denounced Trump's sign. Of all the inane comments that came out of Trump's mouth since the battle over the sign, the one that takes the cake is this: "I had more to do with the design of that building than Adrian Smith did. The best thing that ever happened to Adrian Smith is Donald Trump."

One of my favorite quotes about rich people is this one from the movie Citizen Kane:

Any fool can make a lot of money if all he wants to do, is make a lot of money.

Now I'm not entirely sure Donald Trump is a fool but one thing is certain, his foolish behavior gets him a lot of attention. And if there's anything that Trump craves more than money, it's attention.

Which is why making a big deal about the sign plays right into Trump's hands. Donald Trump could not care less what you and I think. He cares about what Blair Kamin and Adrian Smith think only insofar as what kind of mileage he can get off their remarks.

Trump reminds me of the leader of an all-harmonica band we used to go to see on the far south-east side of Chicago, under the shadow of the Skyway. At the end of every set he would tell the audience: "Thank you ladies and gentleman. If you liked us, tell your friends. If you hated us tell your enemies. Either way we get the business."

According to the comedian John Mulaney, this is how Donald Trump got to be Donald Trump:
 Donald Trump is what a hobo imagines what a rich man to be. He (Trump) was walking in the ally one day, and heard this.
Hobo - "Oh boy oh boy, as soon as my numbers come in, I am going to put up tall buildings and put my name on em. I'll have fine, golden hair, and a tv show where I fire people with my children."

Donald Trump was like, "That is how I'm going to live my life. Thank you hobo for the life plan."
Donald Trump is a self-caricature, the kind of guy who proudly models himself after the prototypical villain you might find in a Frank Capra movie.

In the end, just another sign on Wabash Avenue
For his part, Blair Kamin also has an agenda. He has his own books to sell and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see his fame and sales of his publications on the upswing because of his tiff with Trump. Heck, unlikely as it may seem, maybe even some newspapers might get sold thanks to the feud. The feud which is now bordering on the insufferable, seems to be mutually beneficial to both men. But as far as I'm concerned, it's much ado about nothing. Signs have been a part of the visual clutter of the urban landscape for better or worse for time immemorial and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Some of them, I dare say, are even beautiful. Yes Trump's sign detracts from Trump's building to be sure, but it's his building and as long as he doesn't hurt anybody, I suppose he has every right to do with it whatever he wants. As John Stewart suggested to irate Chicagoans: "'s Donald Trump for God's sake, haven't you people ever been to New York?"

Someday, the building will no longer be his and the new owner most likely will remove the sign. Maybe the new sign if there is one, will reflect something more uplifting, perhaps a name like this one:

I S K A.

Kind of has a ring to it don't you think?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Way to go Governor Walker

This article in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel slams the transportation priorities of the current administration up in the Badger State, claiming Wisconsin's ever diminishing funding for public transportation in favor of highway spending is hurting the state as young, educated individuals are increasingly looking to live in places that are: "more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly communities where lifestyles are less dependent on driving." Consequently the folks who were enticed to Wisconsin by its excellent educational institutions, are looking elsewhere to live once they graduate.

Another article from Madison's Capital Times notes that Talgo, a train manufacturing company has shuttered its plant in Milwaukee as a result of Governor Scott Walker's refusal of 810 million dollars in federal money targeted toward high speed rail construction. According to the article:
Talgo is now suing the state for $65 million for the state's reneging on its Talgo contract, and Wisconsin has to foot the bill for a multimillion-dollar maintenance facility and handicap accessibility upgrade at the Milwaukee station, all of which would have been covered by the $810 million federal grant.
Not to say I told you so, but you know what?

I told you so.