Monday, June 27, 2011

Vindication perhaps, but no satisfaction

There are some who believe that a vote for a candidate not running on the ticket of either of the two major parties is a wasted vote. In the 2000 presidential election, I cast my vote for Ralph Nader, knowing full well he had no chance to win. Back then I didn't believe that either candidate of the major parties was qualified to be president. After the outcome of that election was finally decided in January of 2001, I was chastised by my Democratic relatives, friends and colleagues, some of whom blamed me for the George W. Bush victory. They were wrong by a mere technicality as Al Gore won the State of Illinois where I reside, making my vote irrelevant thanks to the Electoral College. Had I voted in Florida, it would have been a different story.

But I digress. Since I always go to the polls on election day, a third, forth or fifth party candidate for me is a viable option, if for nothing other than a no vote. This week there was some vindication in my voting strategy as our former governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted of 17 out of 20 counts of crimes related to corruption committed while he was the Chief Executive of this state. I can honestly say that I did not vote for Blagojevich in either of his elections for governor, both times I voted for third party candidates, but please don't ask me their names.

I never really liked Blago, what he stood for, his bluster, his arrogant posturing and his sheer demagoguery. I considered his pretexts in the first election, about being the reform candidate riding a white horse ready to sweep out all the corruption of the George Ryan administration to be a joke given his pedigree as the son-in-law and former protege of the Chicago alderman Richard Mell.

Bloago's shameless 11th hour demand that seniors ride free on Chicago's public transit systems before he would sign hard fought legislation to send much needed relief money to avoid draconian service cuts and fare hikes nearly put me through the roof. Not to mention that he left the State of Illinois in far worse shape when he unceremoniously left office than when he found it after his first election.

I was almost giddy the day federal marshals arrested Blago at his north side Chicago home two and a half years ago, cock sure that he was deserving of the slammer. Talking to a friend, one much calmer and wiser that I, someone who has knowledge of how these things work, I learned that Blago wasn't really all that different from any other elected official. Deals such as the ones for which he got into trouble, are everyday occurrences as quid pro quo is an integral part of politics. You do something for me, I do something for you, it's not a big deal. Where he crossed the very fine line between legality and crookery, was his foolish tendency to ask openly for rewards (usually campaign donations) in return for his favors, even bragging about them at times, most notably his control over Barack Obama's former senate seat. In other words, he had a big mouth.

To paraphrase Studs Terkel, "he was not the most corrupt politician, he was the most theatrically corrupt."

I thought justice was served when he was tried and convicted on one count of perjury in his first trial last year. The jury in that trial could not agree on the verdict for several more counts which brought us this second trial. My feeling was that the prosecutors should have been satisfied with convicting Blago on the one count which made him a convicted felon who more than likely would be spending time in the house with many doors. I didn't see any purpose in spending more time and public money, in this case for both the prosecution and the defense, going after him again for every count that the first jurors couldn't agree upon. But that's exactly what they did.

In the end there is not much satisfaction for me in any of the events that transpired this week. Frankly, I was hoping for an acquittal on all the remaining charges. We watched the end unfold at my mother's apartment in a high rise in River North. From our vantage point there, we could see no fewer than four TV helicopters flying over the Kennedy Expressway getting live footage of the procession of the black SUV that carried Blago and his wife Patti to their home after the verdict was read. "Let's go home I can't bear to watch anymore..." said my wife as the SUV approached their Ravenswood home with scores of reporters waiting to jump on the couple as they got out of the car. In perfect contrast to my wife, my mother said: "Oh wait I wanted to see this."

We didn't wait, both of us had a bad taste in our mouths. "He just seemed so small and sad" were the words of a co-worker who lives only a few blocks from the ex-governor. Indeed, Rod Blagojevich is a talented man who lost everything because of notoriously bad judgment. He and his family are broke, his integrity is in shambles and saddest of all, his two young children had to suffer because of this whole unfortunate mess, and will suffer even more while their father is behind bars.

The prosecutors got their "slam dunk" as the press kept referring to their almost complete victory. In the end, had they not chosen to continue their prosecution after the first trial, Blagojevich likely would have received about five years in prison for the one conviction. Now with all the additional convictions, most of the pundits are predicting seven to ten years in all likelihood. Two to five extra years for all this circus, was it worth it? I don't think so.

In fact I'm not entirely sure that anyone is served with Blago behind bars. The way I see it, there are three reasons you send someone to jail, public safety, punishment, and detriment. I think Blagojevich's only threat to public safety is as an elected official, which with his conviction, would be highly unlikely to happen ever again. Removal from office, public scandal and humiliation are certainly severe punishments in themselves, and as for detriment, well three recent Illinois governors having served time before him in prison didn't deter Blago so I'm not sure what effect his doing time will have on future governors.

I mentioned in passing to a friend at work that I didn't think the world would really be any better off with Rod Blagojevich in prison. "Do you really want to see him appear non stop on TV after all this?" was his response.

Well on second thought...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The results are in...

City living affects brain structure.

And it's predicted that by the mid-point of this century, 70 percent of the world's population will be living in a city.

So I guess we'll just have to deal with more crazy city slickers like us in the world.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mass in the Mushroom

No one ever said it was easy being a Catholic priest. It's a job that requires a level of dedication and devotion that is simply unheard of in our world of self-realization, self-fulfillment, self-indulgence, in short the whole litany of feel good about ourselves attitudes that pervade our society. In fact the word "self" doesn't appear in many attributes that one would use to describe a good priest, except maybe self-denial.

However priests are human beings with the same needs, and faults as the rest of us. Much is expected of them, which is why it is shocking and newsworthy when they fail.

So many have publicly fallen from grace recently that it is difficult for the vast majority of priests who remain true to their convictions, to be taken seriously. The general public has taken upon itself to believe the worst of them. When our former pastor was removed for misappropriation of funds, people inevitably said to me: "well at least it wasn't for, well you know what," meaning of course the sexual abuse of children. A sad state of affairs indeed.

The man who took the old pastor's job could not be more different from his predecessor. He is a warm, gentle, self- effacing man, (OK another "self" term that could apply to good priests), with a cherubic face that slightly resembles that of Clarence the Angel from the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." Unfortunately, some of our parishioners are not seeing much of a resemblance. This week they see him more as the nasty Mr. Potter.

Our pastor just sent out a letter to the parish telling us he is terminating the popular "family mass" that is celebrated not in the church but in the lunchroom of the school next door.

In his letter, Father told us that this particular mass was created in the 1960s, after the reforms of Vatican II but before the pastor at the time allowed guitars to be played in church. Now that guitars and other non traditional instruments, are in the church proper (they're becoming the rule rather than exception in Catholic churches all over America, much to my consternation), he feels it's time for us to be together again.

For the record, I couldn't agree more.

I once asked my kids one Sunday if they wanted to go to the mass in the lunchroom but my four year old daughter misheard it as "mass in the mushroom." As the term is appropriate on so many levels, not the least of which is lunchroom's subterranean location, the appellation "mass in the mushroom" has stuck in our family.

Mass in the mushroom has a friendly, convivial feeling, compared with mass in the church. The Germans have a good word for that feeling: gemütlich. Mushroom mass is laid back, there's socializing before, during and after the mass, and of course, the music is supplied by a guitar.

I haven't spoken to my fellow parishioners since the pastor's letter, but I can imagine that there will be fierce opposition to the plan. Once at mass in the mushroom, an older guy expressed to me in no uncertain terms his disdain for our pastor's desire to bring the church back together. "We've been doing this for over forty years and no priest is going to take it away from us" were his words, more or less. I'm quite certain he's not alone in those feelings.

Indeed a forty year tradition is nothing to take lightly. Father clearly anticipated the rancor in his flock as he addressed the hope that the "anger and pain will lessen over time as we move forward." Clearly he knows there are rough times ahead.

Although my kids like it because they have cookies after the service, I for one was never a big fan of mass in the mushroom. My feeling was always this: years ago in the midst of the Great Depression, the people of the community pinched their pennies and saved up their hard earned nickels and dimes in order to build themselves a church in which to worship. Through hard work and dedication, they built what would truly become a house of God. Being inside their beautiful building, one can feel their spirit and their legacy. Why then would anyone want to forgo it to worship in a lunchroom?

I know the answer to that question. When the reforms of Vatican II spearheaded by Pope John XXIII slowly began to take hold, it was like a gust of fresh air blowing out the stale, stagnant, tedium of what church had become in those days. Beautiful as it is, the celebration of the Latin liturgy of the Tridentine Mass that had been around for 500 years, had become perfunctory, or so I'm told. Most people at mass, not understanding the language, and not encouraged to participate, were just going through the motions. So were some of the priests. The new mass would change all that, the priest would now face the congregation, and speak to them in their own language.

I wasn't there forty years ago but I can imagine that the people of our parish who created the guitar/lunchroom mass must have felt quite radical at the time, their faith re-invigorated by their new role in the Church. They were outcasts of sorts, not entirely unlike those early Christians who were forced to profess their new found faith in hiding in places like the Catacombs.

Our parish is a extremely diverse lot, both racially and ethnically. During the one time of the year when the entire congregation comes together for a single Sunday mass to celebrate Pentecost, Father asked for a show of hands. He named particular parts of the world and asked how many people came from there. It turned out that every continent with the exception of Antarctica was represented in our church. I'd guess that well more than a couple dozen native languages are spoken by our parishioners.

In his letter our pastor noted that our parish "was founded in 1921 by a German bishop for the Luxembourg community. He named it after a French saint and the first pastor was Irish. The people then proceeded to construct the buildings in the "Spanish" style."Between the lines he is saying something that no one wants to say aloud. The diversity of our church does not extend to the mushroom mass. It is not unusual for the only non-white face to be seen there is that of our priest from Nigeria or our deacon from Cameroon. Now I am not saying this is by design. Everyone is welcome to come to the mushroom mass, it's just that the non-white people in our parish, choose not to go. Maybe they feel out of place, maybe they just feel that mass belongs in church.

I can just hear people say: "well what's the problem, some folks choose to be in the church, we choose to be in the lunchroom, everybody's happy, why change a good thing?" I have to admit that I was quite surprised when Father announced the end of mushroom mass. Frankly, if it were up to me, I'd probably just keep it around to avoid the trouble. It was a gutsy move by our pastor, fraught with tremendous risk.

My parents' greatest gift to me regarding faith was their hands off approach to it. They exposed me to the Catholic Church early, but in the end let me decide for myself. I struggled for years with my faith until the time of my son's birth when everything came together and it all made sense. I don't think there's anything better for the faith than to have it shaken up every once in a while. Fifty years ago, Vatican II shook up the Catholic Church. Forty years ago, the Mushroomites shook up the parish by leaving the church, if only by moving across the parking lot.

Today, if I may be so bold to say this, it is the Mushroomites who could use a little shaking up. Friendly and comfortable as it is, I believe their mass is lacking something that is essential to the Catholic experience. We celebrate the eternal and the universal, not just the here and now. Our church building is s sacred space. Its stained glass windows depict scenes from the life of the Holy Family. Shrines to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (the first devotion of which is attributed to the saint for whom our church is named), invite the faithful to worship privately and light votive candles in memory of their beloved dead. The stations of the cross, the wooden reredos centered around the figure of the crucified Christ, above which is the inscription Intriobo ad Altare Dei (I will go in the altar of God), and most importantly, the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, remind us of the meaning of Mass, which is the time where we literally celebrate the Passion, death and Resurrection of the Lord.

Strong stuff indeed. Now it's true that an open heart and mind, and an ordained priest are the only things you need in order to celebrate mass. As long as the focus is on the right thing, the other physical objects are not necessary. But those things help us focus on Christ and the mystery of our faith. A well designed church is an unworldly place where we gather to grasp things that are not of this world. Most Catholic parishes including ours, provide ample opportunity for their members to gather as a community outside of mass for fellowship, to pray, discuss the Word, to break bread, and to socialize.

Mass is different. I believe there should be a sense of wonder, of focus, of mystery and urgency at mass. The mushroom mass has all the urgency of a weekly game of canasta.

Because of the mushroom mass, our parish is essentially two parishes. Our pastor wants it to be one. And so it will be, unless he is somehow forced to change his mind. Now as everyone knows, the Catholic Church is not a democracy by a long shot. The Vatican still calls the shots and their decrees filter down to local parishes where the pastors have the final call. But the reality is this: at the parish level in the Catholic church, people vote with their feet. If they don't like something about one parish, there is always another parish nearby more than willing to take them in.

I would not be the least bit surprised if we lose several members of our parish because of Father's decision. I already know of one who has agreed to check out another local parish that still has a similar alternative mass. This would be devastating financially to our parish as we are already in the red and we cannot afford to lose more families. It would also be devastating spiritually to see people remove themselves from the community over a trivial (in my opinion of course) matter. If all we had were the school lunchroom in which to worship, our community would be none the poorer. But we have a sacred space with history and memories of lives that went before us and those that will follow. My daughter was baptized in that church and my son made his first communion there. A beloved neighbor was buried there. And so it goes.

In the end of course it's people who are the Church, not the buildings. As I wrote to the members of St. Sabina's parish a little while ago, the Church does not belong to the Pope, or the pastor, or to any of us. The Church belongs to God.

Like our pastor, it is my firm belief that God wants us to be one parish. It is my hope and prayer that the people of our community will come together and the folks on the other side of the parking lot will choose to join us in the sanctuary of our church, as we need one another.

My thoughts and prayers are also with our pastor during this difficult time as he weathers the storm. He is a good man whose intentions are for the greater good of our parish. May God be with him and all the good men and women of the Church who have devoted their lives to Him and to the rest of us.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Istanbul not Byzantium

I didn't want to get into copyright trouble for lifting the title of an old popular song for my own purposes, so I changed the words around just a bit. Admittedly the new title is not quite as catchy as the original, but it will have to do. Anyway, an interesting article by Claire Berlinski on the dilemma over what to preserve in the face of urban development can be found here in City Journal, about the magnificent city of the Golden Horn.

As is the case with Jerusalem and every other city built above thousands of years of civilization, you cannot put a shovel into the ground in Istanbul without digging up a significant piece of the past. Consequently, any building project must first pass muster with local archeologists who often have first dibs on the underground city.

It should not come as a surprise that in Istanbul there is a conflict between those who look toward the future and those who look to the past. Depending upon one's point of view, it's easy to find villains in this scenario. On one side you have the greedy developers set on making a fortune, bulldozing all traces of history that stand in their way. On the other, there are the obstinate historians and archeologists who would stop at nothing to prevent any effort to bring the city into the present, let alone the future.

There are no easy answers as there is credibility to both sides of the argument. I have been to this part of the world and must say that in my limited travels, I never had a more breathtaking experience than walking through the streets of the ancient city of Ephesus, in Western Turkey. The spectacular architecture there speaks to the genius of the Greeks and the Romans. This immensely significant city was the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemus, as well as the Library of Celsus, whose facade today is the centerpiece of the city. A magnificent 40,000 seat amphitheater, the largest of the ancient world, overlooks the harbor. Ephesus is also an important city to Christians, a visitor there walks in the footsteps of St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Today Ephesus is a working laboratory for historians and archeologists who continue to make important discoveries on the histories of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Turkish civilization. Yet for all its splendor and significance, Ephesus is a dead city. It was abandoned during the Middle Ages and lay buried beneath the Anatolian soil for five hundred years until the mid-nineteenth century when archeological fever was rampant throughout Asia Minor. What exists there today is merely a reconstruction of the past, it is spectacular but essentially, not real.

The same cannot be said of Istanbul, which is as real and alive as any place could be. The frenetic activity of life in this great metropolis, makes New York City look like a small town by comparison.

Throughout much of the current city's 2,600 year history, Istanbul, (nee Constantinople, nee Byzantium) has been a city of tremendous importance. During this history, it was the capital of the Roman Empire, the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church (at one point all of Christendom), and the imperial city of the Ottoman Empire. All those cultures left their mark along with the cultures of countless other ethnic groups that at one time or other called the city home. As a result, Istanbul is indeed one of the most cosmopolitan cities to be found anywhere.

Many of these cultural marks remain buried underground and much needed development projects seriously threaten their survival.

With perhaps the most strategically advantageous location of any city in the world, the area that Istanbul occupies has been the center of human activity for at least 8,000 years. We know this because of discoveries made possible by recent excavations for a new subway. Because of these discoveries, historical knowledge of the region has been dramatically altered. Also because of the findings, the much needed subway project has been put on hold. Such is the way of life on both sides of the Bosphorus as Istanbul struggles to bring itself into the 21st Century.

No one knows for sure but Istanbul's population is staggering, and counting, although the estimate of 20 million as mentioned in the City Journal article seems high, it's more likely between 13 and 15 million. It is a city of extreme contrasts. The domes, minarets and towers built atop the seven hills, dominate the skyline.

Istanbul is a staggeringly beautiful city.

Yet the provisions made to house the influx of new residents from the countryside of Western Turkey looking to improve their lives in the big city, are shoddy at best, tragically neglectful at worst. On our ride to the airport, we observed a much different city, one of ramshackle dwellings that appeared to be a disaster waiting to happen. That disaster happened in 1999 when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake centered near the city İzmit on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, claimed tens of thousands of lives. Most of the deaths were attributed to substandard structures.

Ten years later, woefully inadequate infrastructure in Istanbul was credited for many of the deaths caused by flash floods in 2009.

Contrary to the old jokes about Turkish millionaires, (when we were there in 1995, a one million Turkish Lire note was worth about 17 U.S. dollars), Turkey is a developed country with a stable economy. The government of Turkey would very much like to one day become a part of the European Union. There are obstacles that lie in the way, human rights issues being one of them. There is also great concern about the preservation of antiquities and Turkey's cultural heritage. This is a particularly sore subject, just as the Greek government did with the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon that now reside inside the British Museum in London, many of Turkey's historical artifacts lie abroad, sold long ago to the highest bidder. There is justifiable concern that the work needed to improve Istanbul's infrastructure will inevitably destroy many more artifacts. As Berlinski's article points out, "No one wants to be known to future generations as the destroyer of 8,000 years’ worth of civilization."

On the other hand, making Turkey's largest and most important city economically viable as well as a habitable place for all its residents, is a critical piece in the puzzle. The battle that we face here in the United States over the historic preservation of significant architecture, seems like child's play compared to the problems facing Istanbul's future. Berlinski's ominous closing words in her piece suggest that we visit Istanbul now, "while it's all still here." They paint a bleak picture of the balance being forged between the two sides in the battle. I am not quite so pessimistic, preferring to heed the advice of David Sucher, the author of the book and the blog City Comforts. Sucher who clearly is biased toward the preservation side, nonetheless sees progress as inevitable. He advises the powers that be in Turkey to: "...make sure the job is well-done and worthy of visit by generations hence. The loss is multiplied when a valuable historic structure is lost and what's built in its place is junk, which is often."

No one can guarantee that junk won't end up replacing thousands of years of history, one can only hope. The bottom line is that history did not stop being written in Istanbul as it did so long ago in Ephesus. History is being written this very day in Istanbul as it hopefully will continue to be for the next thousand years or more.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day

The posting on Facebook of the photographs of two of my best friends' fathers, as well as my own in honor of Father's Day, reminded me of this post that I wrote almost two years ago, which mentioned all three men.

The piece was written to commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of World War II, and brought me to the realization that virtually all of the fathers of my peers had direct experience with that war.

It is up to us, their children, to pass along their legacy.

Here are the names of the men I mentioned in that post, in the order in which they appear:

Josef Dirisamer
Palmer Morrone
Louis Morrone
William P. Wilson
Kazimierz Scibor
Robert A. Hoggatt
Václav Iška
John Severson

Happy Father's Day gentlemen, your children miss you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Too kind to the pedestrian?

The steam came out of my ears as I heard these words coming out of the mouth of the new radio talk guy from out of town: "We're a little bit too pedestrian friendly in Chicago." I came close to doing something I've never done before, calling up the yak-meister on the air and tell him he was full of crap. But as he was disposing of callers that disagreed with him, I saw little point.

His rant was inspired by the city's announcement about rethinking some pedestrian crosswalks in order to give people on foot more time to cross the street in a safer environment. This would include traffic lights at intersections turning red for 14 seconds every other minute for vehicular traffic in both directions, allowing pedestrians to cross the intersection in either direction, in some cases diagonally.

Radio-guy claimed that we already have too many laws that benefit the rights of pedestrians over those of drivers, "It seems that drivers have more headaches than pedestrians" he said.

Now I for one, don't see much problem with that.

One of the callers expressed frustration about having to stop at stop signs for pedestrian crosswalks in shopping mall parking lots, as it wastes so much gas. He then suggested they have stop signs for the pedestrians instead adding: "people should yield as much as cars."

Interesting choice of words there, it seems he's saying that cars should have the same rights as people. I didn't know that cars had any rights at all!

On the surface, the argument makes some sense; everybody should observe the rules of the road equally, that way, everybody will be safe.

Thinking about it for a second or two however, pedestrians, bicyclists, are motorists are definitely NOT equal.

In a grudge match between an automobile and a pedestrian, I'm taking the automobile every time. Between a car and a bike? Same result. Clearly in the battle over the rules of the road, the greater burden of responsibility has to lie with the person in control of the bigger, faster vehicle, in other words, the person capable of doing the most damage.

This bit of common sense has been with us ever since the invention of the automobile. In short, the pedestrian has the right of way. Apparently, the out of town yaptrap wants to change all that.

Were it not for automobiles and other motor vehicles, there would be no need for rules of the road. There are no legally binding rules of the sidewalk for pedestrians. In my entire life, I have never heard horrifying tales of accidents involving hit and run pedestrians.

On the very crowded lakefront bicycle path that I use daily, you have pedestrians, joggers, dog walkers, as well as people using any number modes of wheeled transportation devices, all traveling at different speeds and trajectories. Chaotic as it is, a few unwritten hints such as ride on the right, pass on the left are sufficient. Using these tips, most people get by quite nicely. That is not to say that accidents don't occur. Some of my worst bike accidents (a few of them admittedly my own fault) happened on the bike path. But with the exception of where the bike path crosses streets with automobile traffic, it's extremely rare that we hear of accidents resulting in serious injury or death.

Obviously the same cannot be said about our roads and highways. The good news is that from 2009 to 2010, the number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. dropped three percent. Unfortunately automobile accidents took the lives of more than 32,000 people in the United States last year. That is not to mention the incredible toll taken on the environment from automobiles and the apparatus needed to sustain them.

To prove he's not biased, the guy on the radio pointed out that he is not only a driver but also a pedestrian and a bicyclist. Well I do all three as well, in fact I listened to his rant while driving. Whenever I get behind the wheel, I adhere to the rules of the road in order to protect the safety of my fellow drivers as well as my own. I give bicyclists a wide berth and am always looking out for pedestrians, especially children darting unexpectedly into traffic. The knowledge that I could conceivably maim or kill another human being if I make even a small mistake while driving, gives me pause and is never far from my mind. I can't imagine how anyone driving a car can't have those same thoughts, but after many years of life experience, it is clear that many do not.

When I ride my bike I'm equally conscious of yielding the right of way to pedestrians, but I don't worry about being much threat to motorists or other bicyclists. And when I'm a pedestrian, I don't think that I'm much of a threat at all. How anyone can see the burden of responsibility for these three activities as equal is beyond my understanding.

That's not to say at all that I condone reckless behavior for pedestrians and bicyclists. Everyone is ultimately responsible for his or her own safety, not to mention the safety of others. In the case of an accident, it's of little consequence who is at fault if someone is seriously injured or killed.

Much of the grief coming from disgruntled drivers has to do with the undeniable fact that traffic is getting worse. But can anyone tell me with a straight face that the main reason for bad traffic is all the bikes and pedestrians on the road?

That's ridiculous of course, traffic is bad because of all the CARS on the road. I've linked to this page before and couldn't resist linking it again. Scroll down and check out the side by side pictures, one of forty people and forty cars taking up an entire city block, and the other of the same forty people and a city bus that can contain them all, obviously taking up far less space. Now picture those forty people without the bus, as pedestrians. Imagine how little space they take up. A motorist with any sense at all should be happy when people give up their cars in order to walk or ride their bikes. I've said it before and I'll say it again, no driver ever has this lament: "boy if only there were more cars on the road."

No I think the aggravation comes from something much deeper in the human psyche. It's the idea that somebody else is able to do something you're not, as if these whining drivers are saying to anybody who is willing to listen: "Gee mom, it's not fair, Jimmy gets to go through the red light and I don't."

Like any good mother, in the spirit of our new mayor the city is telling them: "It's OK Johnny, you'll still be able to get to where you're going before Jimmy does. Now have some milk and a cookie, go to bed, and shut the f--- up."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Well at least they didn't kill you

Those were my mother's words to me several years ago after she learned that I had been robbed. Although her words were far from comforting, I'm always reminded of them whenever things look really bad. No matter how bad things get, they can always be worse.

Spring is upon us and after a long hard winter, people like to get out of the confinement of their homes to seek a much needed outlet from months of sedentary existence. For some it means getting out into the garden, for others it might be baseball, tennis or soccer. Spring is the time for new beginnings, it's the time of the ritual of spring cleaning, of getting rid of the old and starting anew.

In the effort to recharge one's life, some people turn to romance.
Others turn to violent crime.

It has become a rite of spring of sorts in Chicago. Every year, it seems a new form of mayhem previously unheard of around these parts, rears its ugly head. Not that mobs of teenagers attacking, beating up and robbing unsuspecting victims is anything new. The twist is that this year, the attacks have become more brazen. We now have copycat incidents inspired by similar, but far larger events in Philadelphia that began a few years ago, centered around the most popular parts of the city.

Despite the efforts of the police and the Emanuel administration to downplay these "flash mob" attacks, the news media have had a field day with them. Given the instantaneous nature of news gathering these days, getting to the bottom of this has been difficult. It began with rumors of bicyclists on the lakefront being attacked by mobs who removed them from their bikes, then threw the hapless victims into the lake. These reports are unsubstantiated as far as I know. Then on Memorial Day weekend, North Avenue Beach was closed for mysterious reasons. The authorities say it was the severe heat, while others claim it was gang activity. On my own I have noticed much higher police presence in that area than normal. One thing is certain, within the last few weeks there have been a number of reported incidents where mobs of youths attacked people, many of them tourists, in the Streeterville neighborhood, grabbing whatever valuables they could, beating the victims along the way.

Some arrests have been made but the attacks continue.

The undercurrent to this story is something that almost everyone has difficulty addressing, at least in public. It is the race issue. The victims of these crimes have all been white or Asian. The alleged perpetrators have all been African American. It is difficult to address because so much hard work by so many to foster understanding if not exactly love between people of different colors, has been undermined by the acts of a handful of individuals.

I don't have the answer for why people commit senseless crimes. Some would say that the cause is desperate poverty and racism. Since I grew up neither poor nor black, I have no idea. Also, unlike many of these young criminals I suspect, 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 taught me right from wrong, They preached against prejudice, in my father's simple but powerful words that I will take with me to my grave: "people are people." 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.

Yet there are countless individuals who come from less than ideal family circumstances who do not become criminals.

There are many socio--economic and psychological reasons for criminal behavior, yet I do believe that a moral-ethical compass in one's life, handed down, not by clergy, councilors, teachers, or society, but by PARENTS, has a tremendous effect upon a child's life.

So do I think that parents are to blame for their children beating up and robbing perfect strangers? Well in a word, yes. I believe that parents (two people, a biological mother AND a father) who bring a child into this world, whether by plan or accident, have the responsibility and obligation to do everything in their power to teach that child how to become a decent human being. If they cannot, it is imperative that they find parents for their children who can. Rich or poor, anything less is simply unacceptable.

In the previous paragraph I mentioned two words that are no longer in vogue in our society. It seems as though today we center our values around personal freedom and expression, on financial success, on self (and instant) gratification, and on doing whatever it takes to make ourselves feel good. So much is focused on the self that we forget there is no such thing as personal freedom without personal responsibility. And how can we possibly feel good about ourselves if we don't fulfill our obligation to be good to our bothers and sisters.

So does society share some of the blame? Again, yes.

Hillary Clinton wrote a book and based one of her campaigns on an old African adage that "it takes a village to raise a child." There is certainly credence to that statement. We live in a global village and all of us fall short when children turn to crime. But the truth is that the immediate village surrounding these children needs to step up to the plate and take charge. Kids aren't going to listen to old white men like me blather on about right and wrong. It has to come from someone they know and respect.

I tried to find commentary on the recent flash mob attacks from some familiar voices in the African American community, but they have chosen to remain uncharacteristically silent. Had the tables been turned, had mobs of white teens sought out and beat up black people on Michigan Avenue, there would have been universal indignation and outrage that would have rightfully been trumpeted around the world.

Which brings me back to my mother's words at the top of this post. Saying that there are worse things than being attacked by a mob of hoodlums of course, is setting the bar ridiculously low for our expectations of life in the city. However the truth is that as bad as getting beat up and robbed is, the real victims in this flash mob nonsense are not the people getting mugged.

I can say this with some authority because I was the target of one of these attacks about six years ago. Terrible as the experience was, I moved on with my life the next day. I was forced to deal with my faith's obligation (there's that word again) to forgive. And that's what I did. Sometimes I think about where the five young men who mugged me are today. For their sake I hope they got past the incident, went on to broaden their horizons, and are leading happy and productive lives. But the odds unfortunately are not in their favor. If they chose to continue robbing and beating up people, or worse, chances are they have or are currently doing time, which will make their prospects for the future extremely difficult at best.

In a broader sense, the city government and the Chicago Police Department will certainly do everything in their power to stop these attacks. In the near future I'm afraid, a trip downtown won't very pleasant for many young African Americans who simply want nothing more than to enjoy the city with their friends. And if these attacks do continue, they will wreak havoc with Chicago's economy as, like it or not, tourism is a huge engine that drives our city. Tourists will view Chicago as a dangerous place and decide to spend their hard earned money elsewhere. As we've seen in the past few years, when the economy takes a hit, the African American community is one of the first to feel it, and one of the last to recover.

Several years ago, Bill Cosby in an address to the NAACP, spoke very candidly about the problems facing the African American community and how many of those problems come from within. Although he was expressing views that are commonly held within the community, by "airing out the dirty laundry", so to speak, he was excoriated by many African American intellectuals. Michael Eric Dyson devoted an entire book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? to the subject. I have not read the book but it's interesting to note that in this one excerpt, Professor Dyson spends a great deal of time criticizing the messenger, but in the end, at least tacitly acknowledges the message.

In my search to find African American commentary about the flash mobs, I found this article by Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell about an infinitely more troubling subject, the utter lack of hope for the future among much of African American youth. Mitchell writes about her grandson who is being raised in the virtually all white North Shore suburbs because her daughter feels that is the only place where he has a good chance for the future. Mitchell's summation at the end of the piece is heartbreaking. She says this:

When keeping a black boy away from his own community increases his chance of surviving, there is no black pride.

Of course tragedies like the ones Mitchell describes in her piece are not limited to the African American community. This article describes first hand a horrifying event that took place just yesterday.

The fact is, we are facing the prospect of a lost generation of children.

My mother's words notwithstanding, nothing could possibly be worse than that.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Catching up...

I've been a little out of touch lately as every once in a while, to quote myself when I had to explain to my son's soccer coach why the boy couldn't make it to a few games, life seems to get in the way.

Here are a few links to excellent posts from some of my favorite go-to sites, starting off with a lovely (as seen from the rear view mirror) tribute, to of all places, Indianapolis, from Aaron M. Renn, aka The Urbanophile.

From a guy who always seems to post the things I merely wished I had, here is Robert Powers' eloquent take on architectural preservation from his blog: A Chicago Sojourn.

On the topic of preservation, here are two more links on parts of this city's history that have fallen or are about to fall through the cracks:

I was reminded of this post from a couple of years ago on Jyott Srivastava's excellent blog: Chicago - Architecture & Cityscape, when I rode my bike the other day past the wood block alley behind the Cardinal's residence on State Parkway, and discovered that it had just been dug up. Thankfully she documented it before it was wantonly destroyed.

Even though I've lived in Chicago all of my life, I still discover things I had no idea existed. A few weeks ago I was riding the Green Line on the south side when I noticed an imposing old auditorium building with its name spelled out on the facade, The Forum. As these things go, it made a strong impression on me at the time and then I put it out of my memory, until this morning that is when I saw this article from Lee Bey on its imminent demise.

Finally, on his great blog: Pete Lit, Pete Anderson has a 60th birthday tribute to my favorite book about my hometown, Nelson Algren's Chicago, City on the Make. Pete points out that there are passages Algren lifted directly from other sources without attribution, but goes on to call this a "minor irritation." I would have to agree. To me the book reads a little like the poetry in the works of the prophet Isaiah.

The book is eminently quotable. Here are two of my favorites:

Chicago lives like a drunken El-rider who cannot remember where he got on nor at what station he wants to get off. The sound of the wheels moving below satisfies him that he is making great progress.

And this one which is often clumsily misquoted as: "loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose."

Here are Algren's actual words:

Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovlier lovlies, but never a lovely so real.