Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chicago then and now

Wrigley Field, c. 1969

Wrigley Field, August 29, 2012

It's nice to see that some things never change.

The obvious differences in the two photos taken by the same photographer, yours truly, 43 years apart, are the high rise apartment building beyond the scoreboard, and the bleacher seats on the roof of the building just past the outfield wall on Waveland Avenue. Back in 1969 there was no advertising in the park; today it's slowly creeping in, very judiciously. One less obvious but enormous difference: if you check the time on the clock in the later photo, you'll realize this was taken before the start of a night game and as everyone knows, back in 1969 there were no lights in the ballpark, hence no night games.

You might notice the flags flying above the scoreboard, one for every team in the National League, one standard for each division. Today there are three divisions and standards as opposed to two, accounting for the expansion that has happened since 1969. The flags were and are still arranged by each team's standing in their respective division. I'm guessing the picture at the top was made in July or August of '69 meaning the Cubs flag would have been flying at the very top. Yesterday it was flying much closer to the bottom.

One poignant comparison: look at the guy at the right edge of the lower photograph wearing the number 10 Ron Santo jersey. In the photo at the top is the real Ron Santo at third base. You can also see Ernie Banks at first base. I could name the rest of the Cubs position players on the field, but I won't bore you. It looks like they were playing the Cincinnati Reds. If that's true, there would have been at least eight hall of famers (four for the Cubs, at least that many for the Reds), either on the field or on the bench that day, and one more who should be there in my humble opinion, Pete Rose.

I can't say for sure but I seriously doubt that my son and I saw eight future hall of famers last night. But the old ballpark is still there as you can see, pretty much as it looked, if not felt, when I was his age.

How much longer that will be is anyone's guess as there is still heated conversation about what to do with Wrigley Field. More than likely the 98 year old ballpark was not intended to last this long and clearly work needs to be done to keep it standing. My preference would be to bring it up to code but keep it essentially as it is. All the inconveniences, drunken frat boys and their girlfriends notwithstanding, it's still the best damn place on earth to see a baseball game.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

One man's lunatic...

Colin Friedersdorf wrote this article with the provocative title "Why the Reaction Is Different When the Terrorist Is White" which appeared in the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago. It was inspired by news media's response, or lack of one, after the tragedy that occurred in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It was there a white supremacist entered a Sikh house of worship, murdered six people, and injured several more before he took his own life. Since he's dead we'll never know exactly why he committed the atrocious crime; did he have a bone to pick with Sikhs, did he confuse Sikh people with Muslims, or was he simply an equal opportunity hater of everyone who was not like him?

Friedersdorf begins his article by comparing the crime to one that happened just weeks earlier in Aurora, Colorado, where a man shot and killed twelve people and injured nearly one hundred more in a theater showing the new Batman movie. The author claims the Colorado tragedy received far more coverage than the Wisconsin one, and speculates with the help of another Atlantic journalist, that the reason is more Americans can relate to the victims in the movie theater than those in the Sikh temple.

Here is another article from the New Yorker, written by Professor Naunihal Singh, himself a member of the Sikh community, who also feels the Oak Creek tragedy got the short shrift.

I'm not much of a follower of TV news. I get most of my news from other people, from the radio, newspapers and select internet sources. Consequently I'm spared the 24 hour cycle of TV news babble with their constant "breaking news" headlines and hyperventilating, live, on the scene reporters. Since I don't have cable, unlike many of my peers I get zero news from the late night comedy/news shows. So I can't honestly say which story got more press. My own experience of those two events was of the airwaves being filled with incessant information, much of it unnecessary, about both tragedies. Many times during the past month I found myself turning off the radio or TV to spare my children the grizzly details. Personally, the Oak Creek tragedy affected me more as A) It took place closer to where I live, B) the victims were targeted for their ethnicity and religion and C) you'd be way more likely to find me attending a Sikh religious ceremony than a midnight screening of Batman.

I recall another article from right after the Colorado shooting, but not the source, that asked the question: why in the media, when a Muslim commits a crime he is labelled terrorist, when a black man commits a crime he's labelled a thug, and when a white man commits a crime he's labelled sick.

Granted I'm not a psychologist, but the Colorado killer who is white, armed with an arsenal of assault weapons, shot dozens of random strangers in a dark theater while dressed up as the Joker, is clearly a lunatic. Of that I have no doubt. A terrorist by contrast is not insane; a terrorist, whatever the color of his skin, does harm to innocent people in the name of a cause. As has been said countless times before, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, it all depends which side you're on. While he may or not have been insane or acted on his own, given his background of racial and ethnic hatred, the Oak Creek murderer targeted a specific community and consequently was a terrorist. And he was white. So much for that theory. As screwed up as the news media is, to the best of my knowledge, no reasonable journalist has attempted to portray him in a sympathetic light or tried to find excuses for his actions based on his mental health.

Timothy McVeigh who destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and with it the lives of 168 people and their families was a white terrorist, as was his accomplice,Terry Nichols. At the time, that bombing was the worst act of terrorism in the United States and the Feds went after extremist groups such as Nichols's and McVeigh's with a vengeance. The indelible image of a dying child in the arms of a rescuer galvanized the public's opinion of those two men and their despicable act. For their part, McVeigh was executed and Nichols got life behind bars without a hint of regret or sorrow from the press or the general public.

Appalling as the loss of life in Oklahoma City was, it paled in comparison to the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Beyond that, the methods, organization, determination, self sacrifice, and resourcefulness of the al-Queda terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, made McVeigh and Nichols in comparison look like a pair of ten year old delinquents. The loss of life during the September 11 attacks was comparable to the number of American deaths resulting from the Japanese attacks on December 7th, 1941. Like those attacks, the al-Queda attacks plunged the United States into multi-front wars, one of which continues to this day with no end in sight. It must be remembered that unlike the Japanese attacks which concentrated on strategic military targets, al-Queda targeted innocent civilians. And while the September 11 attacks were by far their most audacious and deadly, al-Queda carried out many other sucessful attacks all over the world for the past twenty years.

Draconian tactics were employed by this country and others in an attempt to stem the tide of international terrorism. Innocent people suffered. That was a shame. Unfortunately during times of war there are always innocent victims. Americans of Japanese descent know this all too well. Fortunately the atrocities committed by the US government against Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, were not repeated after 9/11.

That's not to trivialize the suffering of Muslim people after 9/11 one bit. Civil liberties were suspended in some cases. There are still prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp who have yet to receive due process. What's more, in this country and for that matter much of the world, a whole shroud of suspicion over Islam has arisen. Muslims, and others confused for Muslims, have been victims of hate crimes and unjust persecution. That is a tragedy.

After 9/11 many Muslims, men especially, were singled out or "profiled" as suspicious individuals, simply because of their appearance, especially when they were trying to board airliners. The response by civil libertarians in this country was swift and effective. I used to fly a lot more back then and I distinctly remember the folks I saw singled out for extra security screening were more often than not old, female, and often in wheelchairs. In other words precisely the opposite of what any known terrorist looked like. One could argue this case of reverse profiling was just as immoral and illegal as the profiling it was intended to counteract.

Here is Professor Singh from his New Yorker piece:
... it is hard to escape the conclusion that Oak Creek would have similarly dominated the news cycle (as the Colorado shooting did) if the shooter had been Muslim and the victims had been white churchgoers.
Singh is correct about the theoretical reaction to such an attack, but he is doing a disservice to his readers by singling out "white churchgoers." The September 11th attacks were not an attack on white America. The victims of that day faithfully represented this country and its diversity. They came from all colors and creeds, including many devoted followers of Islam.

You bet a Muslim attack on a house of worship filled with Americans of any race or creed would cause a stir.

The incontrovertible fact is that al-Queda is an organization made up of Muslim men. So too is the Taliban who were in control of Afghanistan in 2001, provided a safe haven for al-Queda to do their evil work, AND to this day are waiting in the wings to take over control of Afghanistan if given half the chance. All of the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim, as were the four men who blew themselves up along with fifty two innocent people riding London's public transportation system on July 7, 2005 As were the people who carried out well over thirty al-Queda operations throughout the world over the past twenty years.

What's more, al-Queda and the Taliban used their faith to justify their crimes against humanity. If the bigots of the world ever needed fodder to justify their hatred of the Muslim people, al-Queda served it up to them on a silver platter. No one group of people suffered more at the hands of al-Queda than the Muslim people. Not only did they see their faith perverted by a band of murderous zealots, not only have they been the targets of suspicion, hatred, and worse, but not counting the September 11 attacks, most of the VICTIMS of al-Queda attacks were Muslim.

As an international terrorist organization, there is no comparison between the threat al-Queda presents to the civilized world, and the threat white extremists present, no matter how appalling the latter's ideology, motives or tactics may be. That doesn't of course provide an ounce of comfort to the people who lost loved ones to those yahoos.

Whether it be in a movie theater outside of Denver, a house of worship in a Milwaukee suburb, or in the streets of Chicago, every life lost to senseless, unprovoked violence is an unspeakable tragedy. Each victim was some poor mother's child, someone's sister or brother, perhaps a husband or wife, father, mother or dear friend. Unrestrained news coverage brought to us by the blathering talking heads at FOX, MSNBC or even Comedy Central cannot bring their loved ones back. Nor can it prevent the killing, in fact quite the opposite seems to be the case.

The one thing we keep learning in our culture of hatred, violence, and ready access to weapons of death is this: given the will, it's extremely easy to kill another human being. We don't need to be bombarded over and over again with that message, it's pretty obvious. I simply don't believe it makes much sense to take the pulse of the country by counting the number of words devoted to one tragedy versus another.

As for the survivors (that includes all of us), the sensible ones try to carry on living the best lives they can, try to be fair minded, understanding that an entire group of people cannot be held responsible for the actions of a few, and try their best to keep themselves and their families reasonably healthy and alive.

That seems to be getting more and more difficult on all counts.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Point, counter point

Point one: Northwestern University owns the building that used to house its Prentice Women's Hospital. That building was a ground breaking design by the famed Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg which revolutionized the design of hospitals and along with it, patient care. The building has been replaced by a more up to date building that the hospital believes better serves the needs of expectant mothers and their new born children. They would like to tear down the thirty seven year old building in order to build a state of the art research center, which they say would serve their needs better than converting the old building to such a purpose. Not only that but the University contends the new building would bring in billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the city, not to mention save countless lives through the research that would take place within its doors. All of this would vanish the if University were prevented to build their new building while old building remained. This view was articulated in an editorial in this week's Tribune.

Point two: Liar liar pants on fire. Lynn Becker blasts the Tribune and Northwestern in a post you can find here.

As the rhetoric heats up, it's interesting to look at the images the two articles use to illustrate their relative points.

The Tribune photograph of old Prentice illustrating their editorial is little more than a snapshot showing the now shuttered building in unbecoming flat light, emphasizing the dinginess of the building's concrete facade.

Becker uses an architectural rendering of the Goldberg building which employs dramatic lighting; the picture's vertical format emphasizes the building's eccentric cluster of tubular forms that resemble a giant rocket ship soaring toward the sky. The more traditional steel and glass facade of the base of Prentice is also rendered beautifully, gleaming with a reflection of the sky and the Chicago skyline. The building looks truly spectacular in this illustration, a one of a kind work of art, what kind of Phillistine would dare knock it down?

Unfortunately as is usually the case, the actual building does not quite live up to the rendering. Here is a photograph from Chicago's premier architectural photography firm Hedrich Blessing, that shows a more realistic, yet also flattering view of the building.

To make his case against the Tribune, Becker dug out a markedly unattractive photograph, also from Hedrich Blessing, of the first McCormick Place (developed by Tribune publisher Robert McCormick) behind a jammed parking lot. The Trib's support of Northwestern in this battle is in Becker's words:
...what you expect from those wonderful people who gave you McCormick Place on what should of remained open lakefront.
Becker's caption to the photograph reads: "Chicago Tribune urban planning at work"

Clearly given its track record, the Tribune according to Becker, has no idea what's best for the city.

I have to say my sympathies lie with the preservationists on this one. While old Prentice is no slam dunk candidate in my opinion for landmark status, I truly believe that it is an important building, one well worth saving. As I have heard Becker point out numerous times and I agree, a green building is an existing building, not one in a landfill. Northwestern University is being disingenuous when it claims there are no practical alternatives to destroying old Prentice. Their stated short term plan all along has been to build their prospective research center in the near future, meaning that once the Goldberg building is gone, its site would sit vacant for an undetermined period of time. Things change and it is very possible that they might indefinitely table their plans to build a new building. This city may need a lot of things, but what it most definitely does not need is another vacant lot. The gargantuan vacant lot at the site of what was once the Michael Reese Hospital on the near south side proves that in leaps and bounds. The University owns a great deal of property in the Streeterville neighborhood, and much of it now is vacant. It's very hard to believe that viable alternatives cannot be found. A plan for creative reuse of the old Prentice would be a win win situation for everybody.

Still there are no easy answers and once again we are faced with the struggle over community rights versus owner rights. Here I think Northwestern as primarily an institution of higher learning, has the wherewithal and the obligation to take it upon themselves to come up with a solution that would benefit the entire community, not just their own bottom line.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Today's commute...

I took the Metra Electric commuter train down to Hyde Park this morning. Whenever I ride that train my thoughts go back to a dear friend, John Mahtesian. John was a wonderful photographer whose work was filled with keen wit, a profound sense of humanity, and not a trace of cynicism. That's why you probably never heard of him.

John lived in Hyde Park and on the morning of October 30, 1972 as was his routine, he hopped aboard a train at 57th Street for his daily commute to work. Back then that rail line was owned and operated by the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad. John entered the last car of a Loop bound train and spotted a seat in the rear half of a brand new double decked Highliner car, but another man beat him to it. The man flashed John a little victory smirk as he jumped into the coveted seat. Since there were no other seats available, John moved over to the vestibule area to stand in the center of the car.

That seemingly insignificant event saved John's life, and no doubt cost the other man his. Minutes after boarding, their train overshot the 27th Street Station. The engineer got permission from the conductor to back into the station, however the crew did not signal properly and an express (carrying a co-worker of John's), slammed into the train at a high rate of speed. The rear of the car where the man beat John to his seat was obliterated. John was severely injured, in fact he was the last survivor to be removed from the wreckage some six hours later. 44 people died in that crash, to this day the worst rail accident in this city's history.

John was fully recovered by the time I first met him eight years later, in fact the insurance settlement he received for his injuries enabled him to embark on the first of many journeys to the land of his parents, Armenia, where he made some of his most memorable photographs. Every time I ride that train I think of that terrible tragedy and of my old friend.

---

Going home from Hyde Park is always a bit of an ordeal no matter how I do it. The last time I drove, it took me about two hours to get home. Today's trip involved a bus to a train to another train to a bus. Not so bad, it took only about 1.5 hours. A strange thing happened at 35th Street. The train on the opposite platform opened its doors and everybody got out and boarded our train. It turned out the other train was from a different line that accidentally got switched over to our line. In other words, the train got lost. That was a first for me, not to mention an unpleasant first for all the passengers aboard the wayward train. They had to backtrack on our train to the last common station for the two lines. The lady who sat next to me went on about how this was her first time riding the L, about how awful an experience it was, and how she just cut her pinky toe open and it was bleeding all over the place. It didn't help when we got into the next station where her train was waiting, but completely jammed.

My second train was an express. The woman who shared my seat and her teenage son debated that fact as it was moving at a snail's pace. For the entire ride, mom and son complained about the speed of the train, even getting a fellow passenger involved in the conversation, wondering aloud why this express train was traveling so slow.

I could have told them the tracks were old and the summer heat didn't help, as a result the trains had to move slowly for safety reasons.

I should have told them to be happy, things could have been so much worse.

But instead I kept my mouth shut, just doing my best to enjoy the ride.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The President Is Coming, the President Is Coming...

The leader of the free world, the man whom I admire and plan to vote for in the upcoming election in November, was in town this weekend. In fact I was probably only a few steps away from him as we were both in downtown Chicago on Saturday at exactly the same time. He was at his campaign headquarters in the Prudential Building and I was headed to my mother's new apartment building just to the east. Some folks would have been thrilled beyond belief to be in such close proximity to the President of the United States. Not me, quite honestly had the election been held at precisely that moment, I would have voted for his opponent in a heartbeat. Why the sudden change of heart? Because police were blocking the street that led to my destination and more importantly, the parking lot where a pass was waiting for me.

Whispering epithets at the president under my breath (as the kids were in the car), rants that would have made Rush Limbaugh cringe, I resigned myself to parking in a public lot that would have set me back at least 20 bucks. Fortunately my son who's been to Grandma's more than I have, suggested an alternate route which got us there safe and sound after 45 minutes of driving around in circles.

All was forgiven and forgotten after we got to my mom's new place. I've never been a big fan of high rises, I like to be able to step outside at will, and am not particularly keen on elevators. I must say however, her new apartment on the 41st floor, has a stunning view of the city. I'll have to show it to you sometime. The place also has wonderful amenities that will make her happy and comfortable.

Except for getting my family there, it will be a wonderful place to visit.

I have several friends and family who left the big city for much smaller towns. When I ask them how they like their new digs, they inevitably tell me: "I love it, it only takes me five minutes to get to work."

That's a valid answer. The urge to leave the city typically centers around convenience. I takes me at least one hour to get to work. That's two hours a day, ten hours a week and more hours than I care to calculate in my lifetime spent just going back and forth to work. That's time that I could be doing something more productive like hanging out with the family, playing the piano, or taking Latin classes. Since time is money, I could be using those ten extra hours a week doing more work. What's more, the argument that there are so many wonderful activities at hand in the city falls through the cracks since I hardly ever take advantage of them. Heck I might as well move to the sticks.

But the fact is, since I hardly ever drive to work, my commuting time IS productive. If I'm riding my bike, I'm getting two hours a day of solid aerobic exercise. Going to the gym to work out for two hours every day is a luxury few working people with kids can afford. If I'm taking public transportation, I'm walking, more aerobic exercise, and reading on the train, another activity I have little time for at home. The most valuable activity however during my commute is simply being out in the public, communing with my fellow urban dwellers. Why is that such a big deal you may ask. That's a complicated issue, volumes could be written about it. Essentially I'm convinced that much of the intolerance we are experiencing in our society today has to do with the amount of time we spend alone: alone in our cars, alone in our offices or cubicles, alone in our homes in front of the TV or computer screen. Technology and contemporary suburban lifestyles have made it possible for us to only connect with the people of our choosing, and to avoid virtually all contact with strangers.

Which is not a good thing if you asked me. Unless you are completely homebound, it's practically impossible to avoid contact with strangers while living in a big city. Some would argue that cities are lonely places filled with people living only feet apart yet never getting to know one another. There's some truth to that. My theory is this: we all need a certain amount of personal physical space and when that space contracts, our natural defenses fire up.  Of course we're all different, some of us consider it rude not to greet a neighbor with a simple hello, while to others it's strictly verboten to talk to strangers. I'm not convinced that city people are less friendly by nature than our rural counterparts, we're just faced with personal encounters, both welcome and unwelcome, so much more often. Imagine a crowded bus or train car with standing passengers forced into close physical contact with each other. The unspoken rule almost everyone adheres to is avoid speaking to or making eye contact with strangers. It's not rude not to talk to one another in that situation, quite the contrary, it is being polite.

It's interesting that in many languages, the word for stranger and the word for foreigner is the same.

All this dawned on me yesterday while sitting in church. I mentioned in this space before that our congregation is comprised of a wonderful mix of people from all over the world; every continent with the exception of Antarctica is represented. Our church consists of people of all conceivable races. There are middle aged people sitting in wheelchairs, old people riding in Rascals, young children running around with their parents chasing after them. There are cheerful people in our church, grumpy people, straight and gay people. I'd love to say it's all one big happy family but hey we're human beings not saints. The same can be said for our neighborhood, it is a veritable United Nations in miniature, probably the most integrated neighborhood in the city of Chicago. Seeing people who in their homelands would be at war with each other, standing together in line at the local Jewel waiting to buy kosher salami, halal chicken, or basmati rice and frozen naan, is truly powerful.

This crazy quilt of cultures is only possible in a big city; in a small town where everyone knows everybody else's business, conflicting values, customs and ways of life simply can't coexist as they do here, at least tenuously.

At church yesterday the homily was delivered by a visiting priest from Singapore. Illustrating the point of looking inward, he told this story:
A man who was frustrated with life, set out one day leaving his city for good to find a new life in the "holy city." He travelled very far the first day, then when it was time for him to retire, found a comfortable spot on the ground to go to sleep. Since he had no compass, he took off his shoes and pointed them in the direction he was walking. Now in the middle of the night, along came another man. This man was a bit of a prankster who decided to turn the sleeping man's shoes around in the opposite direction. When our traveller awoke, he put his shoes back on and started walking in the direction his shoes were pointing. After another very long day of walking, he came upon a fabulous city that must have been the holy city he had dreamed about. The strange thing about this city was that it seemed very familiar to him. The buildings looked like the buildings of his old city, the streets and parks looked the same, even the people looked very much the same. He felt very much at home in this new city. With much joy in his heart he decided to stay and there he lived happily ever after.
At my mother's apartment Saturday evening I sat and watched the colors of the glorious Chicago skyline transforming as the sun disappeared below the horizon in the northwest. Slowly lights came on one by one until the buildings once lit by the sun, became lit from within. When it was almost dark, I got up to take a closer look. What I saw greatly surprised me. Lake Shore Drive, which should have been defined by a sea of white headlights and red taillights was dark for as far as I could see. Replacing the lights were flashing blue ones placed at every intersection. Then came a procession of more flashing lights, some red, some blue, on top of about twenty cars and motorcycles, moving at a good clip through Grant Park, just slipping on by on LSD. The president was headed home to Kenwood.

It was a magnificent sight to behold. I was just happy not to be stuck in traffic.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Belle Isle

As if things weren't bad enough in Detroit, one of that city's most cherished landmarks has become a political football between the governments of the City of Detroit, and the State of Michigan. The nearly 1,000 acre Belle Isle on the Detroit River is a city park whose layout and structures were designed by estimable architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Albert Kahn and Cass Gilbert. Due to Detroit's current downward spiral which has only been exacerbated by the financial crisis of recent years, the park has fallen into disrepair. In steps the State of Michigan to the rescue with a plan to infuse money earmarked for the restoration and preservation of the park. They also propose signing a 99 year lease to take over control of the island park. Not so fast says Detroit Mayor (and former NBA star) Dave Bing; we'll be happy to take your money as long as you don't interfere with our control of Belle Isle.

Given how successful Detroit's city government has been in turning their city around, one can only imagine what a bangup job they would do with Belle Isle.

Aaron Renn's astute commentary about the stalemate in Detroit can be found here among other observations about Atlanta, Chicago, and Louisville.

I don't normally put a lot of weight into what's written in comments sections to blogs, they're usually forums to air out folks' dirty laundry. But the comments to this article in The Detroit News bring up something that the mainstream press is generally too polite to mention: the role that race plays in the power struggle up in the Motor City.

One can only hope that the folks of Detroit will eventually come to their senses by putting aside their personal agendas, grievances and biases, to work together for the betterment of one of our country's most important cities. Belle Isle is a diamond in the rough, its restoration and preservation would be a major step in the right direction to help bring life back into that most troubled city.

Unfortunately, time is running out and the city government seems content to sit by and watch.

Detroit deserves better.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Two experiences today

This is a problematic topic, one that is difficult to address honestly and openly. It's about race and stereotypes and two experiences I had today. The first was a conversation with a neighbor who was robbed in front of our building this past weekend. He was coming home late, got out of a cab and was approached by two men who said they had a gun. The robbers took the man's wallet, his watch, and his shoes. "Your shoes?" I asked him. Well they were very expensive shoes, he said. The amount of cash in his wallet was well into four digits. His stolen watch was worth well into five digits. My first thought, which I kept to myself was, "why would anyone carry so much cash and wear such conspicuous accessories on the street, so late at night no less?"

That's really a terrible thought if you think about it, blaming the victim for the crime. I once questioned myself when I was attacked behind our building several years ago. I was lost in thought when approached and grabbed from behind by two young men (with three accomplices off to the side) and later thought to myself that I really should have been more aware of my surroundings. I mentioned that to a neighbor who set me straight: everyone has the right to walk in their neighborhood without getting mugged, period.

After telling me about his misfortune, the man went on a prolonged diatribe about the neighborhood, society in general, and the race of the two robbers. They were black. I'd like to say I took the moral high ground, putting him in his place by telling him that no one has the right to blame an entire race of people because of the actions of a few. I really do believe that but sometimes, having myself been a victim of crime more times that I care to remember, it's difficult to put that all into perspective.

So I just listened, nodded my head and expressed my sympathy for his experience.

This afternoon it just so happened I was scheduled to do some work in two parks on Chicago's south side, one of whom is in the community of Englewood, a neighborhood notorious for its high crime rate. I've done plenty of work in the parks but have to admit that I'm often apprehensive about working in places where I'm the only white person. In my 53 years on this planet I've had exactly one bad experience being in the "wrong neighborhood." On the other hand, I've had many experiences of black people telling me to watch out as I was headed in the wrong direction. They didn't need to tell me why.

My most memorable experience along those lines happened in New Orleans. We were down there for a wedding and the day after the event, my wife and I planned to tour the city with a friend, his wife and his parents. They found a small ad in the paper advertising a jazz parade which was to take place in a neighborhood in Algiers, a section of town across the river from Downtown. After we got off the ferry, we set off on foot to find the parade. My friend went into a bar to ask directions. The joint turned out to be, for lack of a better term, a redneck bar. Its patrons looked at our lily white faces, and told us in no uncertain terms that we were taking our lives into our own hands by seeking out this parade, and by the way: "what the hell you wanna see that for anyway?"

But we were determined, it was in the middle of the day and heck we were from Chicago, we knew how to handle ourselves. So we started to walk in the direction of the parade. Soon, black folks including a police officer came up to us one by one and with genuine concern asked if we knew where we were going. No one was even sure if this event was for real. Now I could easily ignore the suggestion of a bunch of bigots to avoid the place, but I did get a little concerned when the people of the neighborhood were expressing their concern for us. One very nice woman in a car drove up to the site of the supposed parade, then drove back to tell us that yes the event would take place but added: "you folks be careful."

There's really not much more to the story other than when we got to the parade site, (in true New Orleans fashion the parade started about one hour late), it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Two marching bands or crews as they're called, were accompanied by a hundred or so people whooping it up and dancing in the streets. It was the real deal, not the manufactured mayhem of Bourbon Street. Ours were the only six white faces in the crowd but not a single person looked at us askance. I can imagine that the experience of six black folks in an all white neighborhood in the Big Easy, or Chicago for that matter, would be quite different.

We returned and met up with many of the people who warned us about their neighborhood and assured them we were OK, including a group of folks who invited us to join them in church for their Sunday service. To this day I regret that we declined.

Still, after talking to my neighbor, I was not looking forward going to Englewood today. It's been in the news constantly, especially on the weekends when the murder rate in the city skyrockets and it seems every other one happens in that neighborhood. The other park is in a more stable community but was in the news a couple of years ago when a police officer (and community activist) visiting his parents across the street from another park in the neighborhood, was shot and killed by men who were trying to steal his motorcycle.

Well needless to say, my afternoon went just fine. One of the guys working at the first park quipped that I looked like Elton John. I put on my big pair of sun glasses and he and his friends agreed that no, I  looked more like John Denver, although I don't really think so. It turned out that the manager of the second park I was to visit was the former manager of the first one. The guy who told me that worked at the first park and said in no uncertain terms that he preferred his old boss to his new boss. When I met the manager at the second park, I shared that with him in confidence. Using the information I had gleaned at the first park, I also asked him about the Little League team from his new park which beat the team from his old park. It turns out they won the city championship in Humboldt Park, my old stomping grounds. We had lots to share. I told him about my son's baseball tournament experience. It was like that with everyone I dealt with, and it was a great day.

After so many years of attention devoted to racism and intolerance in this country, we haven't come very far. This past weekend also saw the murder of six Americans in a house of worship in suburban Milwaukee. Since the perpetrator was also killed, we may never know the motives behind his actions, but it seems likely given his background, that he targeted these people because they looked different than him. The common assumption is that he mistook Sikh people for Muslims which if true is pathetic beyond being simply barbaric. One thing is certain, the man who killed six innocent people was white. So was the man who shot and killed several people watching a movie in a theater in suburban Denver a few weeks ago and oh yes, also the guy who tried to kill Congressman Gabrielle Giffords and in the process killed six in Tucson last year. Clearly we should be fearful of suburban white men too.

My wife and I are trying to teach our children to see people as individuals rather than as white people, black people, Jews, Gentiles, Muslims or whatever. Differences between people are readily apparent, they don't need to be taught. Avoiding prejudice in one's life is a lot easier said than done; biases that are taught, bad experiences, and basic human nature can poison the water. But the truth is that once you start talking to people of different ethnicities, creeds and races, you realize that we humans have a lot more similarities than differences. As my father always said: "people are people." Simple words to be sure, but they could not be more true.

They are the words I try to remember whenever I feel myself slipping into the abyss of intolerance, and are perhaps my father's greatest gift to me.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympiad

We'd been without a working TV for the better part of a year. Our old large screen analog set was still in perfectly good condition but the converter necessary for receiving digital signals broke down. We hemmed and hawed over getting a new converter, seems those devices are notoriously unreliable, and by the way, why spend x amount of dollars for a piece of junk when we could spend 2x dollars for a brand new digital TV, and so on and so forth. Besides, we were perfectly happy not having the kids watching inane TV shows; even the so called "educational' ones on PBS leave a lot to be desired. The kids seemed OK with it too, after a while.

A study in contrast: Horse Guards Parade, London, 2010
  At the time of this writing, it's  the site of Olympic beach volleyball
I set July as the deadline to purchase a new set because I wanted to watch the London Olympics. We visited London two (hard to believe) years ago and fell in love with it. Plus I've always been a bit of an Olympics geek. They've been a welcome part of my life since 1968, the first Olympic Games I actually remember. While lying in bed before I got up this morning, as a mental exercise, I tried to list in my head the locations of the games going back as far back as possible. I could recall the cities of all the summer games back to 1936 (Berlin), but wasn't too sure about the winter ones before 1968 (Grenoble). You can name me any Olympic host city in the past 44 years and I can recall some personal memory of it.

Here are some of the highlights:
  • Grenoble, 1968, the first Olympics I can remember, Peggy Fleming, Billy Kidd, and Jean Claude Killy were three of the stars. It was my first exposure to skiing, for a brief time I wanted to be a ski jumper. The highlight for my father and me however was when Czechoslovakia beat the USSR to win the gold medal in hockey, it was so big in so many ways, perhaps the actual reason the Soviets invaded my father's fatherland later in August of that year.
  • That October, the Summer Games in Mexico City took place not long after we moved to Oak Park and my life was in transition. My only memory of those games was the Black Power salute given by two American track stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium.
  • I began high school in 1972. That was the year of Munich, and of gymnast Olga Korbut, whom I had a crush on. But those games will forever be marked by the tragedy that befell the Israeli athletes, an event that will haunt me as long as I live.
  • 1976 was the year of the American Bicentennial, the year I graduated from high school, and the year of Nadia Comaneci and perfection in Montreal.
  • Lake Placid, 1980, was the place and year of the Miracle on Ice, when a bunch of American college hockey players beat the mighty Soviet Red Army team.  I graduated from college and later that year the Americans boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow, over Afghanistan. Back in those days we supported the Taliban. Who says sports have nothing to do with real life?
  • 1984 was a very good year for me as my photography career was beginning to materialize. It was also a good one for Sarajevo who hosted the Winter Games. In eight years a Civil War would tear that city apart. What more can one say?
  • Barcelona in 1992 was one of the most spectacular sites for the games, especially the diving venue on Montju├»c overlooking the city. I would visit that site a few years later. My first wife and I separated not long after the closing ceremony.
  • In 1994 it was Lillehammer, Norway, or was it Albertville, France? Anyway they decided to alternate the Winter and Summer Games every two years and things got confusing, both with my life and the Olympics.
  • I remember two things about the 1996 Atlanta games. During the opening ceremonies, Muhammad Ali lit the torch. And I remember the bomb that went off in the center of town toward the end of the games. Between marriages, I was out with one woman during the first event, and another during the second. 
  • Remembering the location of the 1998 Winter Games was tough until I remembered I was in a truck on the Finland/Russia border waiting there all night to get through customs. It was bitterly cold and the drivers and I were chain smoking while listening to hours of live coverage of ski jumping on the radio, in Finnish of course. Oh yes, the games were held in Nagano, Japan. A lesser man would have sworn off the Olympics for good after that experience but not I. Later in St. Petersburg, I watched live coverage of the gold medal ice hockey match between Russia and the Czech Republic.  I imagined there would be public wailing and gnashing of the teeth in the streets after the Czechs won, but alas there was none. 
  • Sydney, 2000 was perhaps the second most spectacular setting for the Games. Haven't been there yet, but was not far away this year in Melbourne, the site of the 1956 Games.  2000 was the year of my second and final marriage and our tour of Europe honeymoon. One of the cities we visited was Rome, the site of the 1960 games. 
  • The games of Salt Lake City, 2002, were the saddest Olympics of my life as my father languished in the hospital after the heart surgery from which he would not recover. He so wanted to see those games and we looked forward to sharing them together. The games were on TV in his hospital room, but I'll never know how much of them he was able to take in.
  • Athens, 2004, and a couple of firsts: for the first time I watched an Olympics set in a city I was already intimately familiar with, AND for the first time I would share the games with my son, although at the age of three, he wasn't very interested.
  • Beijing, 2008, are the first Olympics my son remembers. He had a crush on gymnast Shawn Johnson but denies it to this day. The apple never falls far from the tree.
Told you I was a geek. But I'm not the first to measure my life by the Olympics. The Ancient Greeks measured time in four year periods called an Olympiad, beginning with the first Games which took place in 776 BC (B.C.E. if you prefer). That archaic measurement of time lives on today every year at Christmas during Midnight Mass in the Catholic Church. That Mass begins with the proclamation of Jesus's birth which relates the event with significant events in human history. The ancient text ties Christ to the Greeks with the words: "In the one hundred and ninety fourth Olympiad..."

Anyway, I bought a modest TV last week and at least three out of four members of our family have been glued to it since the opening ceremonies. Right now women's gymnastics are on, so far no potential love interests for my son, not that he'd ever let on if there were. Lots of great events, women's cycling, men's 4 x 200 meter relay, water polo, team handball, ping pong, rowing, and diving. The incredible performance of the British men's gymnastics team who unexpectedly won a bronze medal in their home country. Missy Franklin's magnificent 200 meter backstroke gold medal coming just 20 minutes after another race. A little while ago we saw Michael Phelps lose by 5/100ths of a second in the same race he won by 1/100th of a second in Beijing. Later, he and three teammates won the 4 x 100 meter relay by about 2 seconds, making Phelps the most decorated Olympian of all time. Wait a minute, the American women are about to win the team gold medal in gymnastics. Lots of tears for both the winners and losers as usual. Next week, track and field, it just keeps getting better and better.

I did have second thoughts about the purchase, we're doing a lot of sitting, not much doing. Although sometimes I'd rather be out and about on a beautiful summer evening such as this one, these games are special. My boy put it into perspective when talking about his little sister and said: "She's going to remember these Olympics for the rest of her life."

I guess the TV was a worthwhile purchase after all.