Monday, July 28, 2014

Correction

In the original version of my post on Vivian Maier I wrote this:
The complete story of how Vivian Maier's work went viral is more complicated than I care to go into but in a nutshell, (John) Maloof would eventually buy up much of Maier's earthly possessions, but not all of them. Two other collectors, Ron Slattery and Jeffrey Goldstein also purchased a good deal of Maier's work. Not surprisingly, a bit of a struggle has ensued in the debate of who is the true keeper of Miss Maier's legacy. Here is a link to the web site of the alternate universe of Vivian Maier's legacy keepers. 
Today I got a phone call from Ron Slattery who wanted to make it clear that he is not part of the business of posthumously printing Miss Maier's negatives; rather he has amassed a collection of thousands of Miss Maier's vintage prints, color slides, and negatives which he has not printed.

Mr. Slattery added that not only did Miss Maier make prints of her work later in her career than most people realize, but she also produced portfolios, some of which are also in his collection.

I was not aware of this, nor the amount of vintage Maier prints that existed when I wrote that piece.

Shame on me.

I'm sorry for any confusion I may have caused.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A tree falls in the forest

If you haven't heard of Vivian Maier by now, you simply haven't been paying attention. She's everywhere; her work has appeared in books, web sites, magazine articles, films, and gallery exhibitions. Her life and work have been featured on TV, social media and on the radio, you name it; Vivian Maier is just about the hottest artist around these days.

In case you've been living under the proverbial rock, Maier was an amateur photographer/artist in the purest sense of the term. She incessantly took pictures everywhere she went, beginning in the fifties and continuing until circumstances forced her to give up her passion sometime in the eighties. Despite the considerable volume of work she produced, estimates range between 100 and 200 thousand images, she rarely showed anyone her pictures. Many of her images in fact were never even seen by Maier herself as she left behind thousands of rolls of unprocessed film when she died in 2009.

Tempting as it might be to label Miss Maier an outsider artist, her work falls well within the established tradition of documentary or street photography as it was practiced at the time she was active. If you didn't know any better, you might confuse particular Vivian Maier pictures with the work of well established artists such as Berenice Abbott, Louis Faurer, Lisette Model, Harry Callahan, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Larry Fink, and countless others.

The back-story of Vivian Maier is almost as interesting as her pictures. I say "almost" to avoid distracting from what we should at this late date be paying attention to in the first place, the work itself. Yet "the press" seems fixated on her seemingly eccentric lifestyle, her decision not to exhibit her work, and the chosen profession that sustained Miss Maier (as she preferred to be called) and her work for many years, that of nanny. They have gone so far has to dub her quite regrettably: "Mary Poppins with a Camera."

An industry has sprung up around Vivian Maier since her death in 2009, engaged in discussing, analyzing, debating, promoting, disseminating, deconstructing and reconstructing her life and work. To be sure in case you're wondering, more than a few dollars have exchanged hands in the process.

While I have great admiration for Vivian Maier's work, some of the work of the industry whose stated intent is the promotion of Miss Maier's legacy is troublesome to me.

I first became aware of Vivian Maier and her extraordinary work in 2009 after stumbling upon this blog put together by one of the guys who discovered her pictures only two years before. According to his"official" Vivian Maier web site, John Maloof was looking for images of the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park for a book project when he came across a box of photographs and negatives of Miss Maier's. He bought the box at an estate auction but put it aside once he and a partner didn't find any relevant images among the thousands of pictures. Maloof's attention returned to the box in 2009.

Not having a clue who the creator of the images was, he Googled the name "Vivian Maier" and came up with the photographer's obituary. It turned out she had died only a few months before; he had in fact took possession of much of her life's work while she was still alive.

Maloof began to scan the negatives and soon put together the web site, then a Flicker site. That site which chronicles much of the Maier phenomenon from Maloof's perspective can be found here.

The complete story of how Vivian Maier's work went viral is more complicated than I care to go into but in a nutshell, Maloof would eventually buy up much of Maier's earthly possessions. While there is certainly nothing illegal about legitimately buying a dead photographer's archive, then creating a myth around her in order to sell her work at exorbitant prices, I do find the practice unseemly at best, unethical at worst.  Playing up the Mary Poppins angle in the mercurial art world, the owner(s) of the Vivian Maier brand jumped at every opportunity to promote their product every step of the way. In the name of sharing her work with the world, they would process thousands of rolls of her film, select hundreds of images, then make limited editions of prints from the negatives and sell them for upwards of $2,000 apiece. This is not an unreasonable price for a high quality photographic art print but a few things must be considered:

That Miss Maier was a talent is indisputable. She knew her way around a sophisticated camera, mastering the technical aspects of focus, depth of field, and exposure, using those things to her advantage to create images of the highest professional standards. Beyond that, she had a tremendous eye, a fantastic sense of composition, and the willingness to confront her subjects directly, usually total strangers with whom she had no trepidations about approaching at close range and snapping their pictures. The pictures of hers that have come to light in the past five years are compelling images, windows into a bygone world where ladies wore gloves and hats with veils, and gentlemen wore suits and ties while strolling about the city. She had a particular interest in the poor and downtrodden, homeless people back in the days when they were considered little more than useless bums. Perhaps her most compelling images are the self-portraits, images of herself reflected in a mirror or a shadow, sheepishly placed within the context urban milieu that she loved to explore. Cynics might say that anyone shooting that much film would be able to produce a couple hundred good photographs, but that is not so. Vivian Maier had a clear vision of what she wanted in her work; there is no hit or miss quality in her photographs, she knew exactly what she was doing.

But there is more to being a photographer than taking pictures. An essential part of the art of photography is knowing what to keep and what to set aside. While it's true that photojournalists often shoot roll upon roll of film, (or today, digital files), then send them off sight unseen to their publishers who select the images they wish to use, even they had to at some point in their careers, edit their work to show to prospective employers. Miss Maier did leave behind a number of prints of her work, so we know that at some point she did in fact select what to print and what to leave behind. Those prints are what we in the biz refer to as "vintage prints", that is to say, prints made either directly by the photographer or under her supervision within a set time (say five or ten years) after the creation of the negative. Maier's vintage prints have been sent off to commercial fine art galleries where they sell for on average between the high four and the low five digits.

A photographer's vintage prints are valuable for us in that they provide a clue into how the artist saw her work as a finished piece at the time it was made. Comparing a photographer's vintage prints to her negatives is somewhat akin to comparing a painter's finished paintings to her sketchbooks. In Maier's case, she left behind hundreds of thousands of sketchbooks, but relatively few finished works.

It is interesting that in the vintage works we have, Vivian Maier cropped her prints in the darkroom, choosing to cut out bits and pieces of the image she deemed unnecessary or distracting. To crop or not to crop is the discretion of the artist and is an essential part of the process. Sometime during the fifties and sixties, it became the standard procedure among many photographers to eschew cropping altogether as the full-framed, un-cropped print was seen as somehow more pure and honest.

The folks who are making posthumous prints from Maier's negatives, have chosen to print with the more contemporary, full frame style, something Maier apparently never did. It's not unreasonable to print her negatives this way, after all no one could possibly assume to know how Maier would have cropped her own individual prints. Of course, no one could possibly know which of her negatives Maier would have chosen to print either, not to mention the infinite choices a photographer has to determine the final look of a print. So the question inevitably arises with these posthumous prints, whose work are they, Maier's or the printers'? That is precisely why you won't find the posthumous prints in the collections of fine art museums, the hand of the creator is simply too ambiguous.

Another particularly irksome issue is the fact that the owners of Maier's archive are making limited editions of these posthumous prints. In traditional printmaking processes such as woodblock printing, etching, and lithography, the matrix from which a print is made, whether it be a block of wood, a plate or a stone, is degraded slightly every time a new print is cast. The numbers of an edition actually mean something in these processes as the later prints in the edition are inevitably of a lower quality than the earlier prints. Not so with a photographic negative which if processed correctly can withstand thousands of exposures to light during the printmaking process before showing the slightest sign of degradation. The only reason to make limited editions of photographs, is to artificially inflate the value of the prints by limiting their quantity. This is a standard, well accepted practice in the art world when it comes to living photographers who have the inherent right to determine how their work is to be distributed. It is a much more questionable practice in the case of a dead artist who has no say about her work. Playing this card seems to fly in the face of the expressed idea of sharing Vivian Maier's work with the world.

So what is exactly is Vivian Maier's place in the world? The Vivian Maier industry would have us believe that they have given the us, in the words of this article in The Independent (with perhaps just a touch of irony):
one of the greatest photographic collections of the 20th century...
The article goes on to say the discovery of her work:
– led to Maier belatedly coming to the world’s attention and garnering a posthumous reputation on a par with Henri Cartier-Bresson.
In other words, hers is the work of a heretofore hidden genius, an artist who ranks up there among the great photographers of her generation, a secretive mystery woman who led a double life, nanny by day, great artist by night.

Compelling stuff to be sure but my biggest question (without any irony) to the VM industry is this: Are you serving Vivian Maier and the art of photography, or are you serving yourselves?

Full disclosure here: several friends and acquaintances of mine are a part of the Vivian Maier industry. Without exception, these folks are passionate and care deeply about the medium of photography. I have no doubt whatsoever that they sincerely believe that Miss Maier's work truly deserves the attention it is getting.

Pamela Bannos who is a photographer, cultural historian and professor at Northwestern University, is working on her own book on Maier, trying to create a balanced, nuanced view of the artist. Obviously she too believes that Maier deserves the attention. But she brings to light some troubling aspects about the way Miss Maier the person has been treated by her living handlers. Speaking about John Maloof and his recent film: Finding Vivian Maier, part of which includes scenes featuring several of Maier's personal belongings laid out for display, Bannos says this:
The way he handled this very private woman’s belongings made me feel very uncomfortable. I think that he has successfully made Vivian Maier into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows this model...
I don’t think the movie is a documentary about Vivian Maier at all — it is a film about John Maloof and his quest to “find” Maier. He states early on that his interest is in getting her work into museums, and then spends the bulk of the film exploring her quirky and then troublesome personality.
And what about that "troublesome personality"- should it be of any concern to us? Bannos speculates that Maier probably did at one point try to exhibit her work, as most of the prints she made herself are from her earlier period when she lived in New York. One can only speculate but perhaps early rejection soured her on the process of showing her work, but not on making it. If that is true, Maier's story is not all that unusual. There are countless people who are driven above all other things to make art of one kind or other, and few of them gain any recognition for it. Fewer still are lucky enough to support themselves entirely by making art. Even very successful artists (in terms of sales) at times need to supplement their income through teaching or other means. Others get by any way they can; unless you're like Josef Koudelka and content to lead a vagabond, hand-to-mouth existence in order to create your work, you get a regular job.

Much has been made of Vivian Maier's job as a nanny. Would so much have been made about her vocation had she been a teacher or lawyer? One can only guess, but I think the appellation:  "Hillary Clinton with a camera" doesn't quite have the same ring.

Finally there's the question about her work: is it really as good as they say it is?  There is no definitive answer to that question. Beyond everything I stated above about her work, the process of creating art is one of give and take. I think it's obvious that Vivian Maier's work was not created in a vacuum, she had to have looked at a great many pictures made by her contemporaries as her work is clearly influenced by them. By not exhibiting her work for whatever reason, she wasn't afforded the opportunity to give back, therefore her work inspired or influenced no one. If an artist such as Beethoven for example, had written exactly the music he did, however kept it all to himself during his lifetime, only to have is discovered posthumously, would he have been as great an artist? I think that question is similar to the philosophical question:  "if a tree fell in the forest with no one there to hear it, would it make a sound?"

My answer to both questions would be no.

By definition, sound is "the reception of mechanical waves of pressure and displacement, through a medium such as air and water and their perception by the brain." In other words, sound is the experience of a physical event, not the event itself. Hence if no one, (an animal with the capacity to hear that is) is present to experience and perceive the event, there is no sound. Likewise, art goes beyond the creation of work. It is a process intricately tied the world around it, not to mention what came before and what will ultimately come later. Great as Beethoven's music was, without Beethoven the teacher, Beethoven the performer, Beethoven the conductor, and Beethoven the living man, there would not have been the interaction with other musicians to guide, influence, inspire, or even piss them off as he often did. Without the living Beethoven there to directly influence Schubert and other composers of his era, the music created after him would be have been much different.Without Beethoven's direct contact with his successors, he would not have been as great an artist.

As Vivian Maier did not exhibit her work during her lifetime and participate in the give and take that is a very important part of creating art, she never realized her full potential as an artist. This does not take away anything in the slightest from her work. It is what it is, very well crafted, well seen images, some very good, some remarkable, some astounding, of a world we have lost. Miss Maier is not however a Berenice Abbot or a Cartier-Bresson, nor does she deserve to be included in their company because unlike them, whether by choice or circumstance, she and her work did not participate in the flow of concepts and ideas that moved art and the medium along as theirs did.

Perhaps it's too bad for us that Vivian Maier never realized her full potential; we'll never know how art made today would have been different if she had. We'll also never know if it was too bad for Vivian Maier that she never received the accolades during her life that she's receiving now. My guess is that she lived her life exactly as she saw fit. But that's only a guess; only she knew the answer to those questions, and she took those answers with her to the grave.

Since we don't have any of these answers, the ultimate question is this: is it right to exhibit her work at all without her permission? We could argue both sides of the issue until the end of time.

My personal feeling is this: we're all the better for having seen her work.

In the end I think the answer to the difficult question of Vivian Maier was best expressed by a short comment I found this morning on a Facebook post advertising a Vivian Maier event featuring collectors, book publishers, and printers of Miss Mayer's work, followed by a book signing. The comment, written by a woman named Michiko Kong was this:
Hardly seems fair to have a signing when the photographs are taken by Vivian.

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 German'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, smiling, 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