Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Annals of the Game

The "W" flag above the old Wrigley Field scoreboard this morning flapped proudly in the early fall north-easterly breeze, reminding those who passed it and cared, of the brilliant game played the night before by two teams who could possibly face each other in the World Series. On the other hand, depending on the whims of the baseball gods, last night's game could very well have been the final game played at Wrigley Field this year as the team who calls the ballpark home will be forced into a one game playoff, most likely against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Win that game and there will be October baseball in front of the ivy covered walls which will have begun to turn a lovely shade of bronze. Lose and it's the chill rains of fall and the familiar Chicago refrain of "wait 'till next year."

However, knowledge that the last baseball game in September on the north side of Chicago wasn't a meaningless exercise filled with the strains of Auld lang syne, could be considered a victory all on its own. The winds of change have come to that part of town and all the talk of futility for the past God knows how many years, may soon become irrelevant, relegated as former President Bush once said, to the "trash bin of history."

I may be putting the cart before the horse, as the Cubs haven't won anything yet, but their fans have a lot to be optimistic about. In 2011, the organization that runs the Cubs made a commitment to build a successful team by hiring Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer as director of operations and general manager respectively. The two men gutted the team of all marketable mid-career players, then resolved to start from the ground up, by developing skilled young players in their farm system. That's exactly how it's supposed to be done, at least the way it's been for the past hundred years or so. Back in the nineteen-teens, Branch Rickey came up with the idea of a major league team buying up minor league teams and filling them with young players who would feed into the big time clubs when the time was right. By doing so, Rickey turned the woebegone St. Louis Cardinals into one of the most successful franchises in baseball, as it remains to this day.

The Cubs were in the advantageous position of being able to afford fielding a sub standard team during the re-building process as they had had a reliable fan base whom I always believed would show up to their ballpark even if they put chimpanzees on the field. Sure enough, between 2011 and 2014, the Cubs fielded abysmal teams who finished in last or next to last place in their division. Wrigley Field attendance suffered to be sure but not enough to be a deal breaker. This year the optimistic pundits were predicting that finishing anywhere around rhe 500 mark would be a huge moral victory. Well at this writing the Cubs are 27 games over 500. They have the third best record in the majors and would be on top of every division except unfortunately, their own, hence the wild card playoff.

Frustrated Cubs fans have been claiming their team has been cursed in one way or other since the last time they were in the World Series in 1945, but the fact is that management never bothered to seriously commit to developing young players, until now.

And we're seeing the results. Boyer and Epstein planned for the future, and the future is now.

Speaking of young players, those chill rains came a little prematurely for another group of Cubs, a team of 13, 14 and 15 year olds who were on the verge of winning their league championship. They say the major league team for whom these Cubs are named has found many creative ways to lose over the years, but they'd be hard pressed to find a more frustrating way to end to their season than the ending of my son's Little League team's 2015 season.

I said chill rains but this year it was warm summer rain, lots and lots of it that dampened the season and the hearts of the adults who administered their league.

If you've ever been a little league coach you know how frustrating it can be to organize enough kids to make up a starting nine, especially in the summer with vacations, camps and other family obligations. Fortunately for us, we only had to forfeit one game for lack of enough players, despite having eight games postponed in June alone because of the weather. All those cancellations and rescheduled games frayed the nerves of our head coach and the league commissioner who had to juggle the schedules of sixteen different teams in order to get all the games in. Somehow we got through until the bitter end when we found ourselves in the best of three championship series. In game one we had our way with our opponents who had to call up a few replacement players and perhaps a little overconfidence. Without either the following day they brought their A game and held us to one run in four innings, while we kept them scoreless. Then in the top of the fifth with the help of a couple of uncharacteristic errors from our better players, they scored two. It was a hell of a battle with both teams playing their hearts out. In the bottom of the fifth our lead off batter drew a walk and then the clouds opened. As the infield turned to quicksand, the umpire called the game.

And that is how our season ended. It's a little complicated and convoluted to explain in detail but in a nutshell what happened was this: first of all, the two teams couldn't agree on a makeup date to finish the series as players who also played on travel teams were committed to tournaments. Then the commissioner expressed frustration with our head coach regarding some of his tactics in re-scheduling our games making sure we had a full compliment of players. Finally, certain issues were brought up involving our team and rules violations. On that I'll just say this: one of the issues was petty, the other was somewhat legitimate, and both were entirely honest mistakes on the part of our team. The commissioner decreed that there would be no championship this year, no trophy, no nothin'. If the two teams in the finals wanted to make up the game(s) on their own, they would not be sanctioned by the league. We did try to get the other team to make up the games but we couldn't agree on terms.

Remember this is Little League baseball we're talking about, with absolutely nothing at stake except a ten dollar trophy, bragging rights for the kids, and the damaged egos of some of the parents. Perhaps in the end justice was served as we, the evil transgressors were punished. Never mind that it was the kids who got screwed while the adults did all the screwing up.

The experience was almost enough to disillusion me from the game and it's people. But something always brings me back within the fold. It could have been the great game between the LA Dodgers and SF Giants a few weeks ago. The Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw was coasting along until the bottom of the ninth inning.where he gave up a hit and a couple of walks. Then manager Don Mattingly came out and everyone at the ballpark, everyone watching on TV, and even the great Vin Scully who was calling the game knew, as conventional wisdom dictates, that the skip was going to pull Kershaw who by that time had thrown around 130 pitches. Very un-conventionally, after a few words with his pitcher, Mattingly went back to the dugout with Kershaw still standing on top of the mound, left to his own devices to finish the game, which he did.

This brought to mind the thing I liked the most about our Junior Cubs head coach, who insisted that all his players play every position possible, even the most difficult position, pitcher. It didn't matter if you could throw an 80 mph fastball or could barely throw hard enough to make it to the plate, everyone on our team got the chance to pitch. That strategy paid off as the confidence he instilled in our younger, less experienced players resulted in fabulous results; our bottom of the order players more often than not picked up the top of the order guys when they screwed up. That I'm convinced is what made us successful this season, if only...

As for the big boy Cubs, well, I think everybody agrees that anything positive they do from here to the end of their season, whenever that may be, will be gravy as they've exceeded expectations a hundredfold. The down side is that will definitely NOT be the case next year as anything less than a championship will be seen as a major letdown. That's the overriding feeling in Pittsburgh right now as their team has been rebuilding longer than the Cubs. It's kind of a shame the two good teams' destinies will be decided by only one game where anything can happen.

But that's baseball for you, the game designed to break your heart, not all at once, but one little piece at a time.

Being a White Sox fan, I know all about those little deaths.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Old Roman Myths

A few years ago I wrote the following for a baseball website regarding the event known as The Black Sox Scandal, where eight members of the Chicago White Sox took part in a conspiracy with gangsters to throw the 1919 World Series:
One could delve into the motivations of the players to "play ball" with the gangsters, but most likely the biggest was resentment of their parsimonious boss, Charles (The Old Roman) Comiskey.... They say (Comiskey) was so cheap, he made his players clean their own uniforms which led to the rebellion where the team played in dirty uniforms, hence the moniker, "Black Sox." Comiskey paid his players well below market value, knowing full well that baseball's reserve clause prevented them from playing for another team and negotiating a better deal. Legend has it he benched his star pitcher Eddie Cicotte on the eve of winning his 30th game of the 1919 season, and collecting his $10,000 bonus for doing so...
Few would argue with what I wrote as it's generally accepted that much of the blame for the players' actions lay at the feet of Comiskey, the owner and founder of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Comiskey is popularly regarded as the stingiest of baseball magnates, whose players made a fraction of what players on other major league teams were paid. It's also widely accepted that the"unscrupulous" Comiskey knew the fix was on during the World Series, but did nothing to stop it as he didn't want to risk exposing himself and his investment to shame, scandal, and ruin.

These themes pop up virtually everywhere you look up the story of the 1919 White Sox.

A team that will forever live in infamy, the 1919 Chicago White Sox

But just as the case with Ty Cobb, of whom I wrote a few months ago, it appears that the recorders of history of the past fifty years or so, myself included, have given old Charlie Comiskey a raw deal. Also like Cobb, much of the negativity about him springs from one source. In Comiskey's case, that source is what many believe to be the definitive work on the Black Sox Scandal, the 1963 book Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof. That book would later be made into a popular film with Asinof along with director John Sayles writing the screenplay.

Eight Men Out the book is very detailed in chronicling the events surrounding the scandal, however it must be treated as a historical novel as the narrative weaves between fact and fiction. The book and especially the film depict Comiskey as a real bastard; imagine a pre-redemtion Ebeneezer Scrooge mixed with old man Potter and Simon Legree without the good side, and you get the picture. It's not surprising that Asinof, a dedicated left wing, anti-authoritarian writer/journalist, whose street-cred includes having been blacklisted for a time in the fifties, would include a character like this in one of his novels, all of which center around the struggle of the working class against the injustices of society. Asinof's Comiskey perfectly jibes with the stereotypical turn of the twentieth century robber-baron capitalist pig whose puts his own profit above all else. The character is the perfect foil for working class heroes, (in this case the players), struggling against the Man, (as represented by Comiskey). Eight Men Out doesn't exonerate the players, they clearly are guilty, well most of them according to Asinof, of accepting money in exchange for playing to lose the World Series. But the implication is that their existence under the employ of Charles Comiskey was so desperate, they had no other option. The players' ultimate fate, banishment from the game of baseball, is treated as the ultimate injustice.

It makes for a compelling story and the book and film are well made and entertaining. Unfortunately, the generations of folks who have read the book and seen the movie are unaware that they are works of fiction, especially Asinof's one dimensional depiction of Comiskey. This includes scores of storytellers who have used Asinof's work as the jumping off point for telling their own version of the 1919 team and its boss.

Curiously, the forward of Tim Hornbaker's 2014 biography, Turning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles Comiskey, begins where I began my piece on Ty Cobb, with a quote from Daniel Okrent, as seen in Ken Burns's epic 1994 fantasy titled, Baseball.

Here's what Okrent, who apparently was cast by Burns to be the judge, jury and executioner of people's reputations has to say about Comiskey:
(The White Sox players) were abused horribly by Charles Comiskey, who was a man of small mind, tight fist, and a nasty temperament.
The author of the forward to Hornbaker's book, baseball historian Bob Hoie, goes on to quote other notable writers who have uncharitable things to say about Comiskey. Not surprisingly, all of them promote the idea that it was Comiskey, not the players should have been banned form the game. Hoie then goes on to point out that virtually everything mentioned in these comments comes straight out of the novel, Eight Men Out.

Hoie has done significant research on the scandal, studying documents that have been unearthed since 1963 when Asinof wrote his book. Among the material were thousands of contact cards which contain information on player salaries, bonuses and modifications to player contracts that occurred during each season.

The popular assumption is that, in words taken from the Ken Burns movie:  "no team played better than the Chicago White Sox...and few were paid as poorly." Well it turns out that Comiskey's teams actually carried some of the highest payrolls in the majors for the time, more than 20 percent higher for example than their 1919 World Series opponents, the Cincinnati Reds, the team that Ken Burns erroneously claims was "better paid but far weaker." Eddie Cicotte for example, when you tack on signing and performance bonuses (not including the $10,000 bonus he was allegedly promised by Comiskey) on top of his regular salary, was second only to Walter Johnson in earnings for pitchers in 1919. Catcher Ray Schalk, not one of the conspirators, ended up being the highest paid catcher in the majors and the sixth highest player overall in the majors. In terms of comparison, the Reds' Heinie Groh, arguably a better third baseman the Buck Weaver of the Sox, after all was said and done, was paid ten percent less than Weaver.

Then there was Joe Jackson, one of the greatest hitters in the game who made a paltry salary of $6,000 per year. The reason for that amount is that he was in the middle of a multi year contract in Cleveland when his contract was purchased by Comiskey in 1916 from the Indians. Comiskey was under no obligation to change the terms of that contract, so quite reasonably, he did not. When the US entered World War I late in 1917, the government declared that all men not employed in occupations essential to the war effort were eligible for the draft. This included ball players. Three weeks into the 1918 season Joe Jackson, whose draft status was bumped up to 1A, chose to defect from the White Sox in favor of working, but mostly playing ball for one of these "essential" businesses, the Harlan Shipyards in Wilmington, Delaware, and convinced two other Sox players, pitcher Lefty Williams and backup catcher Byrd Lynn to join him. If there was one thing Comiskey would not tolerate, it was disloyalty. To him, Jackson's act amounted to nothing more than mutiny for the sake of draft dodging, in his words:

I would be willing to give up every player on my squad if they wanted to do their duty by their country, but can't bear to see any of my men going to the ship yards, where they do a little work and draw a lot of money.

Nineteen members of the White Sox organization did end up going to war and one of them, a young prospect by the name of Leo Constantineau, died.

Armistice was signed in November 1918 and by then the fans had forgiven Jackson and Williams of their transgressions. The new Sox manager Kid Gleason talked a still skeptical Comiskey into accepting the two players back onto his team in 1919 for only slightly more money than they were making before they jumped the team.

One of the moore memorable scenes in the movie Eight Men Out was a confrontation between pitcher Eddie Cicotte and Comiskey. Cicotte asked for the $10,000 bonus Comiskey allegedly promised if he won 30 games that year. Cicotte stood at 29 wins but had been benched for several weeks by the team allegedly to "rest his arm" for the World Series. Comiskey coldly told him that "29 wins is not 30" and denied the bonus. This was the final straw for Cicotte who at that very moment decided he would participate in the fix. Incidentally, the book places the incident of the bonus offer two years earlier in 1917.

In either case, Hoie makes a very good case that the story of the bonus is pure fiction. For starters, bonuses that exceeded a player's salary were simply unheard of at the time. Furthermore, checking the records for the two seasons, in 1917, Cicotte did not miss any starts at the end of the season and ended up with 28 wins. In 1919, when he was at the 29 win mark, Cicotte asked for and received time off  from the team to go home to do some work on his farm in Michigan. After two weeks, the Sox requested he re-join the team as they had yet to clinch the pennant. He pitched one game but was removed in the seventh inning as the team was down 5-2. That would be his last game of the regular season. Given his need for money (he was deeply in debt), had Cicotte been one win short of a $10,000 bonus with a few weeks to go in the season, it seems highly unlikely that he would ask to be excused before getting the chance to win his prize.

In a similar vein, Hoie and Hornbaker dispel virtually all the other legends involving Comiskey's penuriousness, including the tale of the origin of the "Black Sox" appellation coming from their dirty uniforms.

Unlike Eight Men Out, Hornbaker's Comiskey biography is a scholarly work, thoroughly foot-noted, and especially different from Asinof's work, somewhat tedious. The author goes through Comiskey's life, season by grueling season, including his playing days in the late 1800s with the old St. Louis Browns (today's Cardinals). The Comiskey portrayed in this biography is anything but nasty, small minded and tight fisted. He was gregarious and well liked, especially early on. The only real character flaw in the man is exposed in his mercurial relationship with Ban Johnson, his partner in the creation of the American League. Originally the two men were as close as you could get, but their friendship was strained eventually to the breaking point by then American League President Johnson's rulings against club owner Comiskey and his team. Hornbaker describes Comiskey as petty, bullheaded and stubborn in his reaction to Johnson's edicts. By 1919, the two men were for all intents and purposes bitter adversaries. Comiskey experienced a good deal of suffering in his life, beginning with the premature deaths of two of his closest brothers and several close friends, all within a small period of time. His own fragile health as well as that of his wife and son were a constant struggle and it must be noted by the mid 'teens, his personality had soured considerably as a result.

It's not mentioned in this biography, but I think it is likely that much of Comiskey's business acumen was developed early on during his time in St. Louis under the owner of the Browns, Chris von der Ahe. Von der Ahe was quite the character, a German-born barkeep who got into the baseball business after discovering that he sold copious amounts of beer after ball games. He bought the Browns and with the help of Comiskey as player/manager, made the team a champion and a huge financial success. Unfortunately for von der Ahe, he became a little too full of himself and his success, (in broken English he famously referred to himself as "der poss bresident of der Prowns"), and lost his fortune almost as quickly as he found it. In his later years he depended upon the charity of Comiskey in the form of a monthly assistance check. One can imagine that Comiskey's most valuable lesson from von der Ahe was learning everything not to do as an owner, especially when it came to holding on to his money.

It's true that Charles Comiskey as a boss was no Old Fezziwig, but he was no Scrooge either. Every spring he spared no expense by sending his players off in style on first class private trains to spring training. Comiskey was especially good to his customers, the fans. Despite taking a tremendous hit to his profit margin, Comiskey refused to raise ticket prices to the levels of his counterparts in the major leagues. He said:
When we came to Chicago we wanted those 25 cent admissions. Those bleacherites made this new plant (Comiskey Park) possible. Baseball has grown but the pocketbooks of some of our friends haven't. Never while I'm living will their space be cut down. The fellow who can pay only twenty-five cents to see a ball game always will be just as welcome in Comiskey Park as the box seat holder.
And never during his thirty year tenure as owner and president of the White Sox did Charles Comiskey raise ticket prices.  In 1910 he built the ballpark on the south side of Chicago that would bear his name for eighty years, but was originally dubbed the "Baseball Palace of the World", so rich in amenities it was, (at least by 1910 standards) even for the twenty five cent fans. As a result, the White Sox constantly outdrew other franchises, including their Chicago rivals the Cubs in the early years of the twentieth century, despite fielding many teams that failed to make it out of the second division.

As someone who actually played the game, Comiskey was intimately aware of the players' concerns, and especially their worth. In contract negotiations, at times he offered players more money than they requested. It's true that more often he rejected demands he considered excessive. When his great star pitcher Ed Walsh demanded more money than Comiskey thought he deserved, Comiskey gave Walsh a flat out no. Walsh held out in the beginning of the season and Comiskey called his bluff. Walsh blinked first and was back within the fold soon enough.

Were the players who took money to throw the 1919 Series dissatisfied with what Charles Comiskey paid them? Probably, after all, how many people do you know who are satisfied with the amount of money they make? But the notion that Charles Comiskey dealt with his players unfairly or differently than of his fellow owners is a myth, as is just about everything else we have been led to believe about him and his relationship to the 1919 scandal.

Charles Comiskey in happier days, 1916
The truth is that Charles Comiskey was one of the pioneers of the game of baseball. As a player he was an innovative first baseman, one of the first if not the first player in that position to play off the bag in order to prevent ground balls from going into the right field for base hits. He continues to be in the record books as one of the all time leaders in stolen bases.(1)  He was a very successful player/manager in St. Louis and along with his on again off again friend Ban Johnson, was one of the fathers of the American League, whose founding ushered in the beginning of the Modern Age of baseball, and a period of unprecedented stability in the game. He created one of the charter organizations of that league, a team with a glorious, if not a winning history. The one dark spot was a season of much promise which was destroyed by the greed of several unscrupulous men. That greed not only destroyed the baseball careers (justifiably in my opinion) of seven ball players (2), but it also came close to destroying Comiskey who could never come to terms with the betrayal of his players. He lived another ten years, essentially a broken man.

Comiskey, a native Chicagoan, loved this city and gave back to it in spades. He offered up his stadium free of charge to any worthwhile cause brought before him. Tickets to games were handed out gratis to servicemen and schoolchildren. Hornbaker quotes Al Monroe of the Chicago Defender as saying:
Half of the churches on the South Side that had risen from store fronts to magnificent buildings had been aided in their climb through gifts from Mr. Comiskey.
Comiskey was also a proud supporter of many progressive causes such as Women's Suffrage and labor unions.

Despite all that, Charles A. Comiskey was demonized as a villain, a man who symbolized everything that was wrong with American capitalism in the early twentieth century.

Having been reduced to a plot device by an author with a clear political agenda, but few facts to back it up, Charles Comiskey's good name and reputation were all but destroyed. Most people today only know the man as the mythical tyrant created by Eliot Asinof.

Just this morning I ran into an old friend who is a life-long White Sox fan. I pulled out my copy of the Hornbaker book with a picture of Comiskey surrounded by one of his early White Sox teams on the cover. My friend took one look at the picture and said: "Oh THAT old prick." I told him about the book and the new revelations about him. Somehow I don't think he bought into it.

Wouldn't you know it, we have such a hard time letting go of our heroes and especially our villains.

(1) In the nineteenth century, stolen bases were recorded differently than today as base runners who took one extra base than the batter, (i.e.: taking two bases on a single or three on a double), were awarded a stolen base.

(2) First baseman Chick Gandil, the supposed leader of the eight players who were part of the conspiracy, retired after the 1919 season, so his banishment from the game did not affect his career, as a player at least. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Things may change, but very slowly

At this writing, Europe is in the clutches of an immigration crisis as thousands of people from Syria and points east seek refuge from repressive regimes and murderous conditions in their homeland. Here in the US, the war of rhetoric over the ongoing immigration of people across our southern border continues.

The objection to immigration is not new. The following words from one of our Founding Fathers regarding Germans immigrating to the United States, make Donald Trump sound like a tolerant, bleeding heart liberal on the subject:

[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. 
Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.
-Benjamin Franklin

Getting past the intolerance in Benjamin Franklin's words, what really struck me in the statement was the last thought, that perhaps intolerance is natural to the human condition. 

Could he have been on to something? Do we human beings have a natural proclivity to mistrust people from other cultures? I think the answer is clearly yes, it's within our DNA. Franklin's words were written in the century before the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, but I think he understood the idea that fear and mistrust of others have ancient roots, survival techniques developed hundreds of thousands of years ago as our ancestors had to compete with other individuals, or groups of individuals, for food, shelter and the other necessities of life.

As Darwin might have explained it, it's simply a matter of natural selection; people with little or no fear who openly welcomed and shared their territory with other individuals, were most likely wiped out by hostile individuals who wanted all the good stuff for themselves. The belligerent individuals who reaped the spoils of their conquests then refused to share them, lived to see another day, while the peaceful, trusting individuals they conquered most likely died out. Sad to say, we are probably the descendants of the belligerent ones, who handed down their hostile, intolerant traits to us. 

Eventually humans learned it was much more productive to cooperate with other humans than to be in constant struggle with them, The concept of community has been expanding ever since. It continues to this day as the world gets smaller because of technological advances and the ever greater acceptance that every human being in the world is somehow connected. Unfortunately our physiological evolution was out-paced by our intellectual evolution, and we still retain fears and anxieties that bear witness to our pre-historic past. Just as our bodies produce excessive amounts of adrenaline when we face stress, we also conjure up irrational fears when we encounter people of cultures that are different from our own. Fifty thousand years ago, we needed that extra boost of adrenaline to speed up our heart rate so we could escape the proverbial saber-toothed tiger attack, just as fears of the different came in handy when faced with encounters of marauding bands of Philistines, Vandals, Visigoths, and their pre-historic ancestors.

Today, not faced with the necessity of out-running a saber-toothed tiger, stress-related heart rate increases do us little good while causing long term harm, as does our irrational fear of the foreigner. 

I always cringe when people defend or condemn a particular human conduct by claiming it is either natural or unnatural. Breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, fucking and running away from saber-toothed tigers are all natural activities, as they all involve looking out for number one. No one has to learn these things, every animal on the planet does them on its own. Just about everything else needs to be taught. All the great moral and ethical systems of the world, be they secular or religious, teach values, which are things that do not come to us naturally. Doing unto others as you'd have them do to you, loving your neighbor as yourself, and the particularly Christian virtue of loving your enemies, are profoundly un-natural, at least in terms of self-preservation.

The truth is our species has evolved and I might add, flourished, because human beings are better than any other animal at cooperating with other members of their own species. It doesn't always work, it's certainly not always pretty, and sometimes our failures are downright horrible, but that's simply the way of the world. That said, human evolution has, despite several bumps along the road, moved inexorably in the direction of inclusion and tolerance. 

Those things are sometimes scary and hard to accept, but given that we have within our hands, the power to destroy all life on the planet, in the long run, nothing less than the survival of our species depends upon us getting along. 

Like it or not, God, or nature (whichever term you prefer) has given us brains to overcome the natural fears and anxieties that served us well eons ago, but now only stand in the way of progress. 

Let me humbly suggest we begin to use those brains. It's only natural. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Two of us old timers at work ran into a third.  Many years ago the three of us played in a weekly basketball game. My one friend said to the other, "don't you miss those games?" to which the other friend replied: "I miss being thirty."

Here in Chicago, the temperature is warm and most people are still dressing as if it were mid-July.
The mid-September sun you see in the picture taken the other day, setting directly to the west means that the autumnal equinox is close upon us, the beginning of fall and the end of summer. Like today's weather, it doesn't feel like all those years have passed, but the signs are there.

Yesterday my little girl was a toddler, she's now a third grader. Just last week my little boy was a baby. Today he's in high school.

Tomorrow they will both be adults. The question is will I think and behave as if I'm still in the summer of my life?

Stay tuned, it won't take very long to find out.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Fourteen years

A litte over fifteen years ago, we went through a minor trauma referred to as Y2K, the coming of the year 2000, when the clock turned into a new millennium. Some folks thought it would mark the beginning of the end, the dawn of the apocalypse, the day of reckoning, you name it. Even rational people had some legitimate concerns as it didn't occur to computer programmers around the world to accommodate their data bases with the extra two digits to differentiate the year 2000 from all the previous years that began with the digits 1 and 9. By late 1999, just about everything was run by computers and no one knew exactly what havok would be wreaked when the clock struck 12 on New Years Day 2000, as millions of computers around the world would think it was January 1, 1900.

I remember it well. On December 31st, 1999, I paid close attention and breathed a sigh of relief as Australia and all the time zones ahead of us brought in the new year with little incident. We celebrated that evening with a big party at our home, secure in the fact we passed through the eye of the storm and there would be nothing but blue skies ahead.  

Little did we realize at the time that the real day of reckoning was still at hand.

It would come precisely 21 months and 11 days later. Fourteen years have past since that dreadful morning, and superficially one might think not much has changed. People still go on with their lives, they go to work, eat sleep and drink, sometimes too much. People still die, the lucky ones only after living a productive life, experiencing the number of years normally allotted to members of the species Homo sapiens. People still make love and produce offspring that continue the cycle.

Yet I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the world has inexorably changed since September 11, 2001, and little of it for the better. That dawned on me most recently yesterday while filling out forms and signing documents which was required as I am occasionally responsible for the packing of art objects for shipment. Among the information I was asked to digest, was the rule that all printed matter containing any information regarding issues of transportation, must be securely stored in locked boxes while not in the possession  of anyone who is not on a "need to know" basis with the information they contain. When not of further use those same documents were to be destroyed by a paper shredder whose specs were explicitly described in the document. This brought to mind images of the old Mission Impossible TV show which began with Mr. Phelps receiving his marching orders via a hidden tape recorder (I'm really dating myself here), which like clockwork at 9:03 every Saturday night, self-destructed five seconds after the message was delivered. The officiousness of these forms as you can imagine, produced chuckles at the proverbial office water cooler. You can bet the words: "thank you Mr. bin Laden" were uttered at some point in the conversation.

I mention this only to illustrate how pervasive the threat of terrorism has become in our lives. It would be impossible to imagine making light of something like this before the attacks, but such is life post 9/11. Dealing with the rigmarol of paperwork and strict rules of course is trivial stuff, a small price to pay when you consider how easy it would be for someone with the motivation and the will to sabotage an aircraft and with it, the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent people. This awareness also comes courtesy of Osama bin Laden and his al Queda charges who planned and committed an act so dastardly brilliant, that few people could have conceived, let alone carried it out.

The handful of people involved in the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington DC were able to accomplish something that legions of armies, their generals and national leaders could only dream of, bring a superpower to its knees. As a result of those attacks and our country's reaction, going to war explicitly against several nations, and implicitly against Islam, much of the fragile "New World Order" stability we briefly enjoyed after the fall of the Soviet Union at the tail end of the twentieth century, came to a screeching halt. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in human history has so much misery been brought upon so many, by so few.

The misery inflicted on the victims of the September 11 attacks was merely the tip of the iceberg. Our incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq brought with them death and destruction in numbers far exceeding those we experienced in this country. Al Qaeda's actions combined with ours helped inspire and embolden a new generation of jihadists who were greatly assisted by the power vacuum we created especially in Iraq. Foolishly we expected the death of Osama bin Laden would end the threat of terror coming from that part of the world. Unfortunately bin Laden was practically irrelevant at the time of his death, and a new group would emerge that was so extreme even al Qaeda kept them at arm's length. We continue to believe we can defeat ISIS and similar groups of religious zealots by using our superior technology to bomb them into submission. We have yet to learn from our experience in Vietnam and the Soviet Union's in Afghanistan that superior weapons are no match for people devoted to a cause for which they are gladly willing to die.

Things on the home front are not much better as this country is more divided now than it has been at least during any time in my life, and that includes the War in Vietnam, and the contentious battles for civil rights in the sixties and seventies. We can't give al Qaeda all the credit for that, but their handiwork on 9/11 and the subsequent events set in motion an unprecedented period of fear, loathing and distrust in this nation. 

So have the terrorists won? Well they certainly succeeded in tearing us apart more than we had been before. That manifests itself everywhere we look in our distrust and hatred of immigrants, of minorities, of the police, and of anyone who has a different opinion from ourselves. The good will that most of the world felt toward us following the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, evaporated quickly after the wars we started in Afghanistan and  Iraq. I'm afraid to say that justified or not, (I'm of the opinion that one war was justified and the other was most definitely not), more harm than good came from our involvement in Iraq, and perhaps to but a lesser degree, Afghanistan. It has been repeated enough to have become a cliche but it is still very true that we may have managed to win the war, but have failed to win the peace. The shooting. at least as far as our military is concerned may be over, but the battle continues, led by an adversary who would like to turn the clock back not to 1900, but more like 900, The cycle continues with no end in sight. I'm afraid it will take a few generations to see any true resolution to the battles we had a large part in exacerbating in the Middle East and Central Asia; I certainly don't expect to see one in my lifetime.

As we observe this solemn anniversary, we remember and mourn the lives that were lost on September 11, 2001, as well as those who perished in all the acts of violence committed as a direct result of the attacks. I would add that we should also grieve for our world and the opportunity and potential lost to the fear and hatred that continues to tear us apart.