Sunday, December 31, 2017

Photographs of the Month

School children and their chaperones assembled for performance of The Nutcracker, Auditorium Theater, December 14

State Street, December 14

Rogers Park, December 18

Wabash Avenue, December 22

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Nutcracker

One of the greatest experiences of my first trip to St. Petersburg in the 1990s was attending a ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theater, Russia's preeminent hall for the presentation of the performing arts. As I admitted in a post of a few years ago, ballet has never been something that particularly touched my fancy. Yet I couldn't help being impressed attending a performance in the very theater where many of the greatest dancers, choreographers and set designers of the last century and a half plied their art. Even in my ignorant bliss, the names Pavlova, Nijinski, Balanchine, Nureyev, and Baryshinikov  meant a great deal to me and observing young dancers performing the same roles on the same stage as those estimable folks of an earlier era, moved me to tears.

Opera on the other hand is something I have greatly appreciated my entire adult life and the Mariinsky has hosted the world premiers of some of the most important operas written by a who's who of Russian composers, including Glinka, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. But the theater is best known as a mecca for dance, perhaps second in the world only to Moscow's Bolshoi, and it has premiered far more than its share of the most familiar works of classical ballet ever created, including exactly 125 years ago this past December 18, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. That performance, the second half of a double bill which also featured the premier of of the same composer's last opera, Iolantha, was anything but a success. Critics chided everything from the abrupt transition from the real to the fantasy world at the close of the first act, to the "corpulence" of the original Sugar Plum Fairy. Who knows, perhaps everyone was just tired after a long evening.

The ballet was essentially moth-balled for the subsequent half century or so before it was revived in Europe in the thirties and in the United States in the forties. A 1944 production in San Francisco proved so popular that the annual tradition of performing the work every winter season took hold.  By the 1960s the ballet became as much a part of Christmas in the USA as Santa and carols played after Labor Day, as one can find at least one Yuletide production of the classic, performed in virtually every sizable American city.

Somehow I managed to be left out of Nutcrackermania for a good chunk of my life. True, I was intimately familiar with the music, as the suite of selected tunes from the ballet, arranged in not quite in the same order that they appear in the original work, is played incessantly at Christmastime. My first experience of the ballet in person, was when I was a chaperone for my son's kindergarten class at a performance put on by a local company for school children. This year I was reminded of that by my son's kindergarten teacher who just happened to show up at a performance of the ballet put on by my daughter's ballet school.

This is the third time my daughter has performed in the ballet. Her first role was as the littlest angel, who shows up at the beginning of the second act. She skipped a couple  of years and returned as a senior angel. This year she had two roles, junior snow and junior flower, dancing to perhaps the most familiar tune of the ballet, The Waltz of the Flowers. This particular dance studio allows children to participate through high school so my little girl has potentially seven more years to participate in their production of the Nutcracker and other programs. It's truly a joy to see her, as well as the other children grow into new and more complicated roles every year. The star of the show is the Sugar Plum Ferry who is on stage for much of the second act. In the role this year was a high school junior, a girl who was a former classmate of my son. I've known her since they played pee wee soccer together ten years ago. Now she is a beautiful young woman who will soon head out into the world to pursue her dreams, wherever they may lead.

A bittersweet moment takes place every year as at the end of each performance, the director of the dance school singles out the seniors who will be moving on. There's not a dry eye in the house as she introduces each dancer, and yes, sadly, most of them are girls, and presents them with a bouquet of roses as she publicly wishes them well for the future.

This year thanks to the dance studio, my daughter and I received a very special perk, tickets to the Joffrey Ballet's performance of the Nutcracker, again put on for school children. Granted it was not the full ballet, just act one. The performers danced to recorded music, not to a live orchestra as the paying crowd gets to see, but it was a magnificent, inspiring couple of hours just the same.

This Joffrey production, the second year it has been presented, is an untraditional take on the story, as it is set in Chicago in 1893, just before the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition. Instead of opening in the living room of an elaborate home, this production opens inside the studio of a woman sculptor, working on a maquette of what would become the most famous feature of the Fair, The Republic,  the 65 foot high sculpture by Daniel Chester French, which was the centerpiece of the Court of Honor, at the heart of the Fair.

In the background you can see the Fair under construction, highlighted by the half complete Ferris Wheel, the first of its kind in the world. As the reality of the sculptor's studio gives way to the magical land of fairies and nutcracker princes at the end of the act, the Fair becomes complete, in all of its glory.

Needless to say, this is a compelling production for anyone who like me, has a passion for Chicago history. It is especially poignant as the current home for Joffrey performances, Louis Sullivan's magnificent Auditorium Theater, (seen at the masthead of this blog), was built just before the fair. Just up the street, the Allerton Building of the Art Institute was built for the fair and served as the setting of one of the event's most memorable events, Swami Vivekananda's address to the World's Parliament of Religions, calling for worldwide tolerance of different faiths.

In a few years the Joffrey plans to leave the Auditorium and move to the West Loop, to the Civic Opera House, taking advantage of that venue's more elaborate backstage facilities. Perhaps when that happens, yet another production will be required setting the ballet during the Century of Progress Exposition which took place around the time the COH was built. 

As I write this, 2:00PM today, December 30, will be the last production this year of Joffrey's Nutcracker at the magnificent Auditorium. I have little doubt that it will return next year to the great hall in all its splendor. If you love classical dance with a slightly different twist, Christmas, tradition, architecture, or Chicago history, by all means make plans to see it.

In the meantime, happy 2018!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

St. Boniface, the Saga Continues...

I first wrote about the sorry saga of the former St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church back in 2009, right as the ninety day waiting period expired after a demolition permit had been issued, clearing the way for the church building to be turned to dust. More than eight years later and several plans to re-purpose the building falling through, the still beautiful structure remains, standing across from the northwest corner of Eckhart Park at the intersection of Noble and Chestnut Streets on Chicago's near north side.

And now a new plan has arisen. In the cheeky words of this Chicago Architecture blog article, the church is about to be "transubstantiated into condos." as part of a square block development.

Again, we'll wait and see if this new plan has any legs. The church, the work of Chicago's pre-eminent ecclesiastical architect Henry Schlacks, has been closed for 27 years, what's another few months?

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Reason for the Season

Last night as is my Christmas Eve custom, while waiting for our children, still with visions of sugar plums, video games and other goodies dancing in their heads, to fall asleep so I could set out their presents under the Christmas tree, I settled in front of the TV to watch the delayed broadcast of Midnight Mass from the Vatican. The familiar strains of the ancient Christmas liturgy were all there along with the pomp and circumstance, the haunting choral music, the fancy people in the front rows, the panoply of languages including Latin, all the smells and bells, and the endless procession of Cardinals embellished in their lavish vestments, preceding the Holy Father, Pope Francis I, as he made his way up the nave of the enormous St. Peter's Basilca. This would be the current pope's fifth Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's, which took place shortly after his 81st birthday.

To some, the over-the-top pageantry of the Roman Catholic Church in all its glory, in its premier venue on its premier occasion, belies the simple story it is commemorating, that of a poor man and his pregnant wife, forced to leave home and travel a grueling journey at the decree of a far off emperor. When it came time for the mother to give birth, no one would open their doors to these strangers, so the couple was forced to find refuge in a barn, placing into service the animals' feeding trough as the bed for their newborn. Of course theirs was no ordinary child, and the good news of the birth of Jesus, the eternal sign of God's being one with His people, was not delivered first to the fancy people, the leaders of the community, the property owners, the righteous, self or otherwise, those in good social standing with comfortable lives, but to the poor and dispossessed, the outcasts, those at the lowest levels society, namely the shepherds out watching their flocks in the middle of the night. Their sheer terror of coming face to face with an angel of the Lord must have been only slightly allayed when he proclaimed to them:
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Now whether you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or believe in God at all, you have to admit that this is one hell of a story that not only gives many of us some degree of hope in a troubled world, but also provides a valuable insight into the human experience as a lesson in humility. Imagine if you will, the King of Kings, Wonder Counselor, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace coming into this world born in a stable, watched over by the untouchables of polite society. Some might argue that it's such an unlikely story, only God could have come up with it.

Likewise, in its infancy, Christianity was itself an outcast, its members persecuted as heretics, tortured mercilessly before being killed mercifully for daring to proclaim their faith in this radical, revolutionary new religion. Needless to say, more than two thousand years after the birth of Christ, Christianity remains the most dominant of the establishment religions of the world, unrecognizable from its humble origins. And Christians, 1,637 years since their faith became the officially sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire, have done more than their share of persecuting.

No, you won't find much humility at Christmas Mass in St. Peter's in the Vatican, nor for that matter, here in Chicago at Holy Name Cathedral. My family learned that lesson exactly eleven years ago yesterday when we attended Christmas Eve Mass in the cathedral, my mother's parish church. By the time we arrived for mass, about fifteen minutes early, the seats in the pews were all taken save for two, way up at the front of the church. We asked the people seated there if my wife, then eight and one half months pregnant with our daughter, and my septuagenarian mother could sit in the available spots. No, the people sitting in the pew told us, they were saving those spots for their late-coming friends. My wife and mother ended up standing with my son and me for the entire mass. To this day I wonder if the irony of that situation ever registered in the minds of those people who turned my elderly mother and very pregnant wife away.

Today in Pope Francis, we have a pontiff who is doing his utmost to move the Catholic Church away from its climate of self-righteousness and privilege, and closer to its humble beginnings emphasizing the fundamental core values of love, forgiveness, compassion and charity. More than his predecessors, Francis has made a point of advocating for the outcasts of society, namely the sick, the poor, the incarcerated, and most recently, the refugee. In a world whose direction seems pointed in the opposite direction with the recent election of populist demagogues who feed off anger and fear of the stranger, Francis's message is a simple one, be not afraid. When Francis speaks at Midnight Mass in St. Peter's of the plight of the Holy Family as strangers in a strange place turned away by the townsfolk, it should come as no surprise that he would make a connection between the Christmas story and the plight of people living today. Sure enough, early this morning Pope Francis told the world:
The faith we proclaim tonight makes us see God present in all those situations where we think he is absent. He is present in the unwelcomed visitor, often unrecognizable, who walks through our cities and our neighbourhoods, who travels on our buses and knocks on our doors.
This same faith impels us to make space for a new social imagination, and not to be afraid of experiencing new forms of relationship, in which none have to feel that there is no room for them on this earth. Christmas is a time for turning the power of fear into the power of charity, into power for a new imagination of charity. The charity that does not grow accustomed to injustice, as if it were something natural, but that has the courage, amid tensions and conflicts, to make itself a “house of bread”, a land of hospitality.
In his Christmas Eve homily, Pope Francis, who has never hidden his disdain for the current lot of populist leaders including our own president, minced no words this morning when he compared them to one of the most notorious of New Testament villains:
So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary. We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones. In many cases this departure is filled with hope, hope for the future; yet for many others this departure can only have one name: survival. Surviving the Herods of today, who, to impose their power and increase their wealth, see no problem in shedding innocent blood.
Them's truly fightin' words, the pope equating contemporary world leaders with the man whom Christians believe ordered the slaughter of all male infants in Judea, out of jealousy of the newborn King, whose birth he was informed of by the gift-bearing visitors from the East.

For his part, the Christmas Eve message from the President of the United States was a self-congratulatory tweet proclaiming that he won the "war on Christmas" as evidenced by the number of Americans who were once again using the term "Merry Christmas."

Little does this man seem to understand that the real war on Christmas lies in our selfishness, our indifference, our lack of compassion and understanding for our brothers and sisters, certainly not in our reluctance to use the word Christmas in deference to our friends who do not celebrate the holiday.

The pope closed his message with a prayer to God to wake us from the slumber of that indifference:
Moved by the joy of the gift, little Child of Bethlehem, we ask that your crying may shake us from our indifference and open our eyes to those who are suffering. May your tenderness awaken our sensitivity and recognize our call to see you in all those who arrive in our cities, in our histories, in our lives. May your revolutionary tenderness persuade us to feel our call to be agents of the hope and tenderness of our people.
It is that fire of the revolutionary spirit of the early church that Pope Francis hopes to ignite in the hearts, minds and bellies of all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

When this pope speaks these words the chorus of angels proclaimed to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem so long ago:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward men...
...he is not uttering a trite slogan found on greeting cards once a year, but proclaiming a call to action for us, this day and every day. It is a message of self-reflection and hope for people the world over of good will, whether they believe or not.

In other words, it is truly meaningless to say the words merry Christmas without living them.

May all of us learn to live those words in the coming new year.

And a very Merry Christmas to all!

Post script:

Pope Francis's 2017 Christmas Eve homily can be found in its entirety here.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Alternate Universes: A Tale of Two Networks

My weekend plans were re-arranged after an unexpected trip to the hospital for my mother. She's fine now, thanks. My mom has a little dog and my most important job last weekend was to stay at her place to take care of the pooch. Crashing at her downtown apartment is a little like staying in a nice hotel, complete with cable TV, which we don't have (for good reason) at home.

My tradition of entering a hotel room for the first time is to plop down on the bed and check out what stations the TV has to offer. It works pretty much the same at my mom's. I'm not a huge TV watcher at home so maybe that's why I'm always eager to take advantage of the tube when I'm away.

It just so happened that my mother checked into the hospital on huge news day. Last Friday three major stories vied for our nation's attention, the Senate vote on the Republican income tax overhaul,  Robert Mueller's indictment of former Trump national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and the acquittal of Jose Garcia Zarate in the murder charges in the death of  Kathryn Steinle.

MSNBC, the only TV news my mother watches, devoted this past Friday to the Flynn case, with only a brief mention here and there about the impending Senate vote. In the time I sat in her hospital room, I must have seen the tape of Flynn leaving his car and entering Federal Court in Washington D.C. with his lawyer by his side, at least two thousand times. Not a single angle of the story was left uncovered while the network's reporters and commentators, especially Rachel Maddow, could not conceal their glee at the prospect that this move of Robert Mueller to go after a one time high ranking member of the administration, nailing him with only the mildest of charges in exchange for his cooperation with the investigation, could set into motion the downfall of this president. While I didn't shed too many tears for the commander-in-chief, I didn't jump for joy either. My skepticism runs high these days as it seems like we've heard it all before. Trump, the teflon president, and before that, the teflon candidate, has gotten where he is despite countless violations of ethics, decorum, common decency, and even the law, wrongdoings that would have doomed anybody else. He could very well survive Michael Flynn an Robert Mueller as well.

But if you listened to MSNBC this past weekend, you'd have thought Donald Trump was all but impeached and headed for jail. I needed a different perspective, one that could be found just one click away on my mom's remote control.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the unofficial voice of Donald Trump, Fox News had an alternate take on the Flynn indictment. Commentator Tucker Carlson who hosts an evening program on the network, had a puzzled look on his face, a trademark of Fox talking heads when speaking about the opposition, as he wondered aloud what all the fuss was about.  After all the time and money spent on the investigation into Russian meddling into our election and Trump's possible connection to it, Carlson suggested, if the indictment of Flynn lying to the FBI was all the investigation could come up with, then Mueller and his whole team owe this country a huge apology. There was no mention of the possibility that Mueller might possibly have bigger fish to fry than Michael Flynn.

Fox News didn't even lead with the Flynn indictment Friday night. It led with the Kate Steinle story. Turns out the staunchly anti-liberal/Democrat network is obsessed with the death of the young woman. If you're like me and hadn't heard of Kathryn Steinle, it's probably because you don't watch Fox News. The Fox version of her story goes something like this:

Kate Steinle, a 34 year old San Francisco woman was walking along the Embarcadero with her father on July 1, 2015, when a bullet struck her in the back and punctured her aorta. She died two hours later in a hospital. The bullet came from a gun that was fired by Jose Zarate, a Mexican national and a convicted felon, here in the United States illegally. In fact Zarate had been deported from the United States five times but always managed to make his way back in. When he finished a jail term on drug charges in San Francisco, despite frequent requests from immigration officials that Zarate be turned over to them for deportation, the local authorities let him go free, enabling him to kill Ms. Steinle.

Zarate went on trial for the murder of Kathryn Steinle this October. Despite there being no question that Zarate fired the shot that killed Steinle, last Thursday he was acquitted on all murder charges, and convicted only on a weapons charge. As California law allows convicted felons credit for time served in jail awaiting trial, Zarate stands to serve only a short amount of time. Never fear, the Trump administration has taken a particular interest in this case and its Justice Department has plans for Zarate once he gets sprung from the California hoosegow.

The shooting of Ms. Steinle has become a cause celebre for alt-right groups for whom illegal immigration is a hot button topic. And why not, you would be hard pressed to find a more compelling story than a young woman dying in her father's arms, tragically gunned down by an undocumented felon who was set free by local law enforcement officials in a so called sanctuary city. Jose Zarate has become a poster child for the dangers of illegal aliens, such a big part of Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric, who in his words, cross our borders to rape and murder decent Americans. In fact Zarate was very likely the inspiration for Trump's controversial description of illegal Mexicans in this country. Kate Steinle's name was mentioned by Trump in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and the Republicans have introduced "Kate's law" which would "enhance penalties for deported felons who would return to the United States." By far the biggest target for the alt-right Trumpkins is the city of San Francisco and all sanctuary cities whom they feel put the rights of criminal illegal aliens over the safety of law abiding citizens.

Something obviously went terribly wrong here. Even I had to ask myself, how could this happen?

Well as I said, this is the Fox version of the story, and from everything I can tell from other sources, there is nothing out of line about their version, except for the not so small problem that it leaves out a number significant details.

First of all, there are felons, and then there are felons. From the Fox description of Zarate, he could have easily been a member of a notorious drug cartel or a relentless gang banger bent specifically on murder and mayhem. Zarate was none of those. He was a wobegone drifter, homeless and drowsy from the sleeping pills he took after picking them out of the garbage, at the time of Kate Steinle's shooting. The crimes he was charged with were drug related offenses and re-entering the United States after being deported. None of his convictions were for committing violent crimes. As criminal illegal aliens go, Zarate was the smallest of small potatoes and it's easy to see how he fell between the cracks of the system.

The gun he fired was stolen from a California Bureau of Land Management officer, that Zarate claimed he found underneath a park bench wrapped in a tee shirt. A surveillance video seemed to corroborate Zarate's story as it showed two men (neither of them Zarate), discarding a bundle under that bench that could very well have been the gun, hours before the tragedy. Zarate testified that the gun accidentally discharged as he was picking it up from the ground. The police who interrogated him testified at the trial that they lied to Zarate about what they knew about the evidence in order to convince him to come up with a more damning confession. Ballistics showed the bullet that struck Ms. Steinle ricocheted off the pavement before hitting her, indicating that even had Zarate intentionally fired the gun, he was not aiming at the victim. After reading all the details of what happened, the only logical conclusion one can come up with is that Kate Steinle's death was a tragic accident, at the very worst, gross negligence on the part of Zarate, but hardly first degree murder, which was the charge the prosecutor originally sought against him.

Unfortunately logic doesn't seem to play a big part of Fox's agenda. On a day that featured two far reaching stories that will play a significant role in this nation's history, Fox devoted a half hour of a one hour prime time news program to the story of that tragic accident.

And how much time did MSNBC devote to the story of Kate Steinle last weekend? Exactly two minutes and fifteen seconds. I know that because Fox published an article falsely claiming that MSNBC gave zero coverage to the story this past weekend, then corrected their mistake via a tweet that enumerated the minutes and seconds of their coverage.

In the original article now removed from the internet, Fox indignantly claimed their liberal counterpart MSNBC did not bother to cover the story of the shooting simply because "it didn't fit into their narrative." Perhaps there is some truth to that. On the other hand, the Steinle story, minus all those nasty details, fits into Fox's anti-immigrant narrative like a glove.

If you can bear it, watch what "Judge" Jeanine Pirro, by far Fox's most snarky, bellicose and obnoxious commentator had to say the other day about the Steinle case.

Pirro wears her contempt for anyone who disagrees with her, particularly liberal Democrats, like a mink coat. She is so snarly and vindictive, she makes Fox's biggest name commentator, Sean Hannity, no shrinking violet he, look like the avuncular actor/singer Burl Ives. In the commentary where she refers to Zarate at least twice as a "dirtbag", Pirro, like Trump and other members of the far right, claims that the trial was a miscarriage of justice. "That's why we call it criminal justice, not victim justice." Pirro said.

It's surprising to hear someone with supposed legal experience, express such shock over the procedures and the outcome of a real life trial. No, the jury was not made aware of Zarate's immigration status as Pirro claims, but such is the case in similar cases. Yes she's right, the judge denied the jury from seeing and handling the gun that killed Ms. Steinle to determine how easily it could misfire, again, common procedure. Pirro conveniently didn't mention the police admission of lying to the suspect or the prosecutors' choice to go after the big enchilada, murder one, rather than the much more realistic charge of manslaughter. She also didn't mention the chief prosecutor's far-fetched closing argument which stated that Zarete was "playing his own secret version of Russian roulette" with Ms. Steinle, or the culpability of the BLM ranger who carelessly allowed his gun to be stolen in the first place. Real life law and order doesn't work like it does on TV where justice is always served for young, attractive victims  (as Ms. Steinle was constantly referred to by Fox). To hear Pirro talk about the trial, you would think that because it was held in that heaven forbid, liberal bastion of San Francisco, all the cards were stacked in favor of that dirtbag Zarate and against the attractive Steinle. Pirro even bemoaned the unfairness of the fact that the decedent, Ms. Steinle wasn't present at the trial to represent herself while the defendant, Mr. Zarate was. I could be wrong but it's my impression that murder victims are not customarily present at the trials of their accused killers.

The wisest, most even-handed words I've read about this case, come from Robert Tracinski, Senior Writer for the conservative website "The Federalist." The gist of his article comparing this trial to the George Zimmerman trial in Florida, can be summed up by its sub heading: 
The Kate Steinle verdict is the Right's turn to be outraged after an acquittal because they were never warned about the weaknesses of the actual case.
Tracinski cautions against using crimes and personal tragedies as narratives for promoting agendas or ideology, no matter what side it comes from by saying this:
individuals are not symbols and…every shooting has its own irreducibly concrete facts and context…. Every case of the use of force is a discrete incident with its own unique facts. It is not an abstract morality tale about racism or poverty or heavy-handed policing. Nor is it a parable about illegal immigration and sanctuary cities
The tragedy that befell Kate Steinle and her family, can never be minimized. But she and her family have been exploited by the Right (just as Trayvon Martin and his family were by the Left) as standard bearers for a cause they never asked to be a part of. Jeannine Pirro suggests that justice for Kathryn Steinle would not come until more draconian immigration laws are implemented, a wall is built along the Mexican border, and zero government funding is granted to sanctuary cities. My guess is that the Steinle family would beg to differ. From what I've read about them, while they're disappointed with the verdict, they want no tributes or laws in their daughter's name, just a chance to be left alone to grieve properly.

My guess is that as long as the Steinle family tragedy can be used to promote the alt-right's anti-immigrant, anti-sanctuary city agenda, as long as it can be used as an easy distraction from all the problems and missteps of the Trump administration, Kate Steinle will not rest in peace anytime soon.

And that's the real injustice.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Photographs of the Month

Elm Tree, North Garden, Art Institute of Chicago, November 2

My friend, photographer Tom Harney, Adams and Wabash Station, November 2

Wabash Avenue, November 3

Evanston, IL, November 3

CTA Red Line Subway, November 10

"Junior Snow", Performing Arts Limited, Rogers Park, November 12

Lincolnwood, Illinois, November 17

Christkindlmarket, Chicago

Chicago's Picasso standing watch over Christkindlmarket
This year saw the closing of my favorite restaurant in the world, Karl Ratzsch's in Milwaukee, as well as the imminent demise of one of this city's last German eating establishments, Chicago Brauhaus. While the sit down German restaurant is becoming a thing of the past in this country, Teutonic holiday festivals have never been more popular. My guess is that while the expensive comfort food with high caloric content your parents liked to eat is fast losing its appeal among young, educated, health conscious, gastronomically adventurous Americans, in other words, the majority of people who eat out in this country, drinking never goes out of style. That's why Oktoberfest is behind only New Years Eve and St. Patrick's Day as this country's favorite bacchanalia.

The Advent holiday festival market, Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christkindlmarkt, is a tradition that began in the Middle Ages in Germany and spread throughout Europe. The typical Advent/Christmas market  found in the center of just about every German town, consists of stands where vendors sell Christmas themed wares, food and of course, drink. Visitors can eat and drink either while strolling from stand to stand, or in some markets, they can sit down and eat in a heated tent which often provides a performance space for musicians.  Here in this country, Christkindlmarket with the extra "e", is a recent tradition. Chicago's first Christkindlmarket, held annually during the four weeks before Christmas, took place in 1996.

On their website, the market's organizers claim this one is modeled after the one in Nuremberg. I haven't been there, but can attest to the authenticity of Chicago's Christmas market as I visited more than one much like it in Berlin during my visit to the German capital in 1994. There is one significant difference between the original and its American counterpart. In Germany, the stands selling goods feature local handmade toys and crafts that typically sell in the 1 to 20 dollar range. As you can see from the pictures here, the items for sale in Chicago, be they ornaments, beer stiens, or other assorted imported bric-a-brac, are much pricier. My guess is that the vendors, most of whom come from Germany and other parts of Europe, would find it difficult justifying the expense of selling their wares thousands of miles from home for the kind of money they would get if they stayed put.

Nevertheless, the satisfying feeling of genial well being, coziness and happiness, or as the Germans call it, Gemutlichkeit, is the same, especially after drinking ein gutes Deutsches Bier, oder zwei.

You can feast on your knockwurst, sauerkraut, potato pancakes and Glühwein either al fresco,...
...or inside a heated tent as these  Loop workers did the other day.

A typical sampling of the items you can find at Chicago's Christkindlmarket

A vendor direct from Germany selling shiny objects for Zuhause...
...and another selling more sedate hand painted ornaments for the the Weihnachtsbaum

And of course, what would a German market be without beer steins?

Chicago's Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza is open every day until Christmas Eve, 11am until 8pm, and until 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

There are two other similar markets in the Chicago area, one outside of Wrigley Field and the other in the suburb of Naperville.

Here is a link to their website.

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The CTA, Bringing People Together

Standing at the L platform the other day, I heard the familiar voice of the operator whose train I've been riding regularly for the past couple years. Unlike most operators who prefer to let the official canned voice of the CTA make the announcements, this operator went to extremes to make sure his passengers knew who was in charge of his train.

The train I usually take in the morning runs express for part of its run, and it was during this ten minute gap between stations where he usually took the opportunity to speak to his captive audience. "Good morning riders..." he'd say after pulling out of the station where I board the train, "...welcome to run number (such and such). I am CTA senior operator number (such and such), and welcome aboard CTA's love connection." Then he'd go on to describe details of that day's run, including possible delays or anything else out of the ordinary we could expect to encounter on the run. If there was nothing out of the ordinary, the exception, not the rule, he'd just shoot the breeze for about half the time between Howard and Wilson.

But the other day when I heard the voice over his train's external speakers, it was not my train. As he reminded us every day for the past month, the CTA in its infinite wisdom, was changing his runs. In one of his laments about about how sad he was to leave this particular group of riders and how it has been his pleasure over the years to serve us, he told a story. It turns out that one day, a couple came up and told him that they got together because of him. Day after day it turns out, this couple who were strangers, noticed each other but as is often the case on public transportation, respected each other's personal space too much to do anything about it. Eventually the ice between them was broken during one of the operator's trademark banters. when one of the two, (not sure which one), made a comment about him. Now the operator didn't mention whether the couple's first conversation ever was about how funny, or how aggravating he was, (he could indeed be both), but without question it was he who brought the couple together. Presumably this was the inspiration for calling his run the "love connection."

This week the morning train ride has been remarkably silent and ho hum. The general good feeling and even camaraderie that once existed between the riders is broken. Couples who are attracted to one another on the train are going to have to find some other way to break the ice. Or like me they can start riding the local, where operator number (such and such) can still be found, no doubt engaging, enraging, and bringing people together.

In the climate of division this country is currently experiencing, that can only be a good thing.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

No More Lines?

I concluded this post back in March with the thought that big stuff like public sentiment over Russian meddling in the presidential election, and the health care fiasco might not bring down the Trump administration, but that possibly little stuff like cutting funding to popular charitable programs that help the most vulnerable among us like Meals on Wheels would. After all I reasoned, Trump, by cutting such programs, was resembling the mean spirited character of Old Man Potter from the movie "It's a Wonderful Life", and nobody likes him.

Well it turned out like all my predictions of the downfall of Trump, I was wrong. In the eight months since I wrote that piece, Trump and his administration have gone places never thought imaginable by previous administrations, and have crossed lines of common sense and decency no one would have dared crossed, at least not in the last 100 years, if ever. And they seem none the worse off because of it, at least among their supporters.

I say if ever because I don't know of any U.S. president in history who has so blatantly exhibited friendly relationships with brutal leaders of hostile foreign nations as Trump has with Vladimir Putin. He has also expressed admiration for other authoritarian rulers such as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Viktor Orban of Hungary and others, while keeping himself at arm's length from the leaders of democratic republics, Angela Merkel of Germany being a prime example. In doing so, Trump is sending a clear message that he values the leadership of brutal oligarchs over democracy, and oppression over human rights.

On the home front, Trump has picked fights with anyone and everyone who crosses him or his agenda. Even Gold Star families of fallen servicemen and women, and veterans themselves, including former POWS, have been the targets of Trump's vicious tweets, especially if they happen to belong to minority groups.  By contrast, one group who has gotten off easy in the Trump-tweetosphere, is white supremacists. This is an about-face from every president in memory who, no matter the guiding ideology,  bent over backwards to respect veterans and their families regardless of race, creed or color, and unequivocally disavowed hate groups.

And now this. Not so long ago, eleven months to be exact, the mere mention of a public figure taking liberties of a sexual nature with an underage person, meant a one way ticket to Palookaville, at least in the court of public opinion. Not anymore. Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, the same guy who was booted out of that job twice for his blatant disregard of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, was accused by several women of abusing them while they were minors. Moore was in his thirties at the time, His behavior back in the seventies and eighties was such common knowledge that scores of people from his home town, Gadsden, AL recently went public with testimonies of Moore's proclivity for seducing young teenage girls. So bad were those charges that Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell, made a public plea to Moore to withdraw from the race to fill the void of the Senate seat of Jeff Sessions, as his possible election in the heavily Republican state, would be a terrible embarrassment to their party. For a party whose leadership has shown little or no scruples, moral compunction or shame in the past twenty years, that's really saying something.

Even Trump originally intimated that Moore would be doing his party a favor by stepping aside. But after it became clear that Moore had no intention of doing so, Trump weighed his options and decided that counting a child moleter among his supporters in Congress, was better than letting a Democrat, who most certainly would vote against his much cherished tax bill, fill the void left by the current attorney general. Besides, Moore denied all charges against him; had Trump condemned the man solely on the basis of the multiple allegations of women, what would that say about the plethora of women who have come forward to accuse Trump himself of similar behavior?

So last Wednesday, between pardoning a turkey and heading off to Florida for yet another weekend of playing golf, Trump declared his unequivocal support for Roy Moore.

In doing so, Trump is joining ranks of Republicans all over the great state of Alabama who say they would rather be represented by a child moleter than a Democrat.

Despite Trump's about face on the Moore issue, many Republicans holding steadfast in their opposition. Tim Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina recently had this to say:
In my opinion — and in the opinion of many Republicans and conservatives in the Senate — it is time for us to turn the page,... it’s not about electing Republicans versus Democrats. This is about the character of our country. I want to be on the side of right when history writes the story.
The senior senator from that state, Lindsey Graham took a less eloquent, and more pragmatic approach saying Moore's remaining on the ticket is a lose-lose situation for Republicans:
If he wins, we get the baggage of him winning, and it becomes a story every day about whether or not you believe the women or Roy Moore, should he stay in the Senate, should he be expelled?... If you lose, you give the Senate seat to a Democrat at a time where we need all the votes we can get.
Apparently there is trouble brewing in the paradise otherwise known as the Republican Party between rational politicians interested in governing, and those who support Trump come hell or high water.

Lest you think that there are no lines of decency that Trump supporters will not cross, you would be wrong. This post was originally inspired by Trump's reversal of an Obama era law banning the importation of ivory into the United States. The goal of the ban was to limit the market for the luxury item and in doing so, hopefully reduce the hunting of the ever dwindling number of the Asian and African elephants. Well as they say, if Obama had found a cure for cancer, Trump would have tried to find a way to repeal it. It seems likely that the reversal of the ivory ban was simply another attempt to dismantle the legacy of his predecessor.

Now I knew something wasn't right in the state of Denmark when my friend Dave came out and said he was appalled that Trump would do anything that would harm elephants. Dave you see is the most vocal Trump supporter I personally know. While all my other Trump supporting friends are keeping a very low profile these days, Dave without hesitation, proudly and publicly carries the mantle for "our president". When Trump told the faithful to boycott the NFL, Dave was there. When Trump refused to call Nazis, Klansmen and the folks who marched with them, nogoodnicks, Dave defended him. And when Trump said that all the women and townsfolk who accused Roy Moore of wrongdoing were lying, Dave went along just as he's gone along with practically everything this president has done or said in the past eleven months. One good thing about having Dave as a friend is that he regurgitates whatever comes out of the mouths of the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh so faithfully, I never have to watch or listen to those mouthpieces of the administration, both of whom give me a bad case of indigestion.

In a nutshell, Dave is the paradigm of the typical Trump supporter, right down to the demographics. So when he lambasted "our president" for his role in opening up the doors to the mass murder of elephants, I had to take notice. Apparently, so too did Donald Trump. After Dave's stunning Facebook announcement, quicker than you could bat an eye, Trump rescinded his executive order on the ivory trade, so as not to put off his supporters, like Dave.

So the answer to the question I posed up at the top of this post is yes, there is a line that Trump supporters will not cross. The problems and suffering of their fellow human beings might be quite irrelevant to them, but not those of animals, at least not elephants. Maybe if all of us Trump detractors started wearing huge floppy ears and trunks, sported enormous tusks, and pooped everywhere at will (as elephants cannot be housebroken), this country could start back on the road to unification.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Lies

In case you somehow missed it, the recent downfall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has set into motion a maelstrom of accusations of sexual misconduct against men in positions of power, especially in the fields of entertainment, politics, and journalism. At the start of this writing, the latest man to fall is journalist and TV personality Charlie Rose. I have little doubt that before I finish this piece, there will be others.

The public reaction to these revelations has been inconsistent to say the least, ranging from disappointment and disgust, to outright denial and counter accusations of the accusers. In one particularly disturbing case, that of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, the suspect's alleged crimes have been generally accepted, yet have been overlooked by many voters and officials in his state, including the governor. Apparently to them, voting for a child molester is more appealing than voting for a Democrat.

Of course not all sexual predators and their crimes are created equal. Some are accused of committing the most heinous violations of decency, not to mention the law, namely child molestation and rape, while others are accused of lesser, but still serious indiscretions of predatory behavior. Yet public reaction to these men and their acts, seems to be determined more by who they are and what they stand for, rather than what they supposedly did.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that folks on the left, those who claim at least to champion women's rights, would be less than forgiving of sexual predators, including the ones whom they support in the case of politicians, or are fans of in the case of entertainers. It's unlikely for example that the careers of liberal darlings such as actor Kevin Spacey or comedian Louis C.K. will ever recover after the darker sides of those individuals were publicly revealed. By contrast, Donald Trump was elected president, despite his infamous comments bragging about abusing women, and over a dozen accusations against him of the very same. It should be noted that the current president has denied all charges against him and claimed that his recorded comments were simply manly braggadocio, not at all uncommon "locker room talk" as he called it. Roy Moore also denies the allegations against him. By contrast, both Spacey and C.K..admitted their wrongdoings, at least to an extent. 

While the actor and the comedian's careers look to be toast, at least for the moment, the jury of public opinion is still out on Senator Al Franken whose feet are planted firmly in both the political and entertainment worlds. Franken who is one of the most outspoken U.S. senators against the current administration, was accused of making unwanted sexual advances against a fellow performer, Leean Tweeden, who was traveling with him on a USO tour to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006. What his accuser described in detail, if accurate, would constitute assault, a serious crime. She also produced a photograph taken aboard a military plane showing Franken grabbing at her breasts while she was asleep, his head turned to the camera bearing a lascivious grin.

After the accusations were made, unlike Trump and Moore, Franken immediately apologised saying that while his memory of the events did not exactly jibe with those of his accuser, he still made egregious mistakes for which he was ashamed. He then called for an official ethics inquiry into the events in question. Surprisingly Tweeden said that would not be necessary. Interestingly enough, an inquiry would require testimony under oath. You can read into that whatever you like.

The president, who probably would be best not to weigh into the sexual escapades of others so as not to appear as the pot calling the kettle black, nevertheless tweeted about Franken's problems:

The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?

From that comment, and the comments of right wing pundits, it would appear that it is not the word of the accuser that matters, notice Trump did not mention the alleged assault, he mentions only what appears in the photograph, and what he imagined to have taken place after the picture was taken. In other words, Roy Moore (and Trump) may have had dozens of women make allegations against them, but what they didn't have, was a photograph depicting their indiscretions. You can deny accusations to your heart's content, but you cannot deny what is depicted in a photograph.

But having spent nearly half a century directly involved in the medium of photography, I can tell you most assuredly this: because of the verisimilitude of the photographic image, photography can lie like no other medium. Several years ago I wrote a post about the most controversial photograph taken in New York City on September 11, 2001. There is nothing fake about the photograph, it is a straight image presented without any undue editing or alteration. The picture depicts five young adults sitting along the bank of the East River in Brooklyn, engaged in what appears to be casual conversation, as smoke billows from the site of where the World Trade Center stood just hours before. The photograph wasn't published until five years after the event. Upon its publication, viewers were aghast at the seeming indifference to the tragedy unfolding right before their eyes in the attitudes of the people depicted in the photograph. An intrepid reporter for Slate Magazine tracked down two of the people in the picture and discovered that while their gestures did not replicate the faces of disbelief and terror of the people photographed in lower Manhattan on that terrible day, they were anything but indifferent to the situation that was going on around them. The interpretation of the picture by both the photographer who snapped the photo then moved on without talking to his subjects, and the assumptions of writers who used the picture to illustrate the seeming lack of empathy in the American psyche, got it completely wrong. You can read my post about that photograph here.

Now it would be a fallacy to claim that the photograph of a leering Al Franken appearing to grab a women's boobs while she slept, is anything less than creepy, inappropriate, and demeaning to women. But if we are going to take the word of a photograph over the testimony of women as the president suggests, it would stand to reason that we might question the word of the accuser as to what was actually going on in the photograph. Could it be for example, as someone who was present at the event has suggested, that Tweeden was actually in on the gag and not really asleep? From the photograph alone, we simply can't tell.

Where folks on the right seem to always question the motives of women who charge men of sexually assaulting them, especially if the accused happen to be right wing politicians, folks on the left seem to always, and I mean always believe the women without question. This article that appeared on the website Medium, written by S. Novi, suggests both sides are wrongheaded, that we need to take a critical approach in evaluating the credence of such claims. The writer suggests that yes, it is indeed conceivable that a woman may bring false charges against a man.

She goes on to suggest that the charges against Franken are a setup. In her piece provocatively enough titled Al Franken: The Obvious Setup and Liberals Took the Bait, Novi points out that Franken's accuser is under the employ of Fox Network, and a frequent guest of Fox News's Sean Hannity, the commentator who serves as the personal mouthpiece for Donald Trump. Then there was Republican strategist Roger Stone spilling the beans about Al Franken's "time in a barrel." Stone tweeted the following, twelve hours before Leean Tweeden came forward with her allegations:

Franken next in long list of Democrats to be accused of `grabby’ behavior.”

This is all purely circumstantial of course; working for an ultra right wing media outlet and perhaps having a motive for making up the charges against a notable left wing adversary, does not mean in the least that the accuser was not assaulted by Al Franken. Nor does Roger Stone's remarkable clairvoyance. Nor do the photographs that surfaced of Tweeden on that same USO trip, grabbing the butt of a country singer as he performed on stage, or catching a GI unawares and kissing him passionately. These are photographs, and as we have seen, photographs can be interpreted any way you like. Leeann Tweeden's actions in those photographs as many Franken apologists would have you believe, have absolutely nothing to do with her charges against Franken. No means no period, and if Franken did indeed kiss her without her consent during a rehearsal and in the process stick his tongue down her throat as she alleges, he is guilty of a crime, and should probably be removed from the Senate.

But as the right keeps pointing out, one of Roy Moore's accusers was a woman who worked for Hillary Clinton and had a clear motive for making salacious charges against the candidate on the eve of an election. Yes I thought that was a bit suspicious at first. In that same vein, a certain thread of incredulity runs through my mind about the charges against Al Franken.

However in the Roy Moore case, my suspicions were put to rest after several other woman of varying backgrounds and political bents come out and accused Moore as well, not to mention practically the entire town of Gadsden, Alabama where Moore while in his thirties, served as a prosecutor.  It was no secret in town that Roy Moore liked to frequent the local shopping mall to prey on teenage girls.

I will not go as far as Ms. Novi in suggesting that Tweeden's charges against Al Franken are an obvious setup. We'll never know for sure what happened of course, it could all come down to the word of one person over another. Franken admits to at least a certain amount of impropriety and has expressed contrition, which in my book is the basic requirement for forgiveness. He knows his base at least as well as Donald Trump knows his and may end up throwing himself at the mercy of that base in deciding his fate. For all his shortcomings, Al Franken's base knows that as a U.S. senator, he is a tireless worker on behalf of women's rights as well as other issues desperately important to them.

Franken also may have gotten the last laugh, as having come clean and knowing exactly what happened during that trip, he can honestly testify before an inquiry under oath without fear of perjuring himself.

Who knows if the same can be said for his accuser.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Photographs of the Month

October 3

October 3

October 6

October 6

October 7
October 17

October 18

October 21
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October 24

October 25

October 29

A House Divided

Of all the harm Donald Trump has caused this nation, I would have to say the greatest is his seemingly insatiable appetite for dividing the American people.

Several years ago when he first considered running for president, Trump was convinced he could succeed where other candidates failed, through his remarkable ability to draw attention to himself. Say what you will about DJT but the man has a gift for self-promotion. Where other candidates would have to raise millions upon millions of dollars just to get their face on TV, Trump  knew that flaunting his extravagant lifestyle and larger than life persona, in other words, just being Donald Trump, would get him free press. Topping that off with his unpredictable behavior and off the wall comments, he became the darling of the national media who couldn't get enough of him.

A long time Democrat, Trump probably figured that his reputation as an attention, and pussy grabbing,  unscrupulous real estate mogul with a penchant for conspicuous consumption raised to an obscene level, wouldn't play well among both the rank and file and the holier-than-thou elites of the Democratic Party party. So he switched parties where he would fit in, well sort of, with the business minded capitalist tools of the GOP.

Once he got their attention, and some credibility as a card-carrying Republican, Trump needed a message angle. He found it in the anger and fear of a great many of this nation's white people, who felt somehow left out in all the changes that have taken pace in this country for well, a very long time. Trump reached out to those people whose unfulfilled picture of America was as an endless rerun of Leave it to Beaver. 

For a demagogue to succeed, he needs an enemy. Long before Trump, ultra conservatives found that enemy in the liberal elites whom they felt controlled not only academia and the government in Washington, but also the media, which in turn promoted their evil ideology of inclusion and tolerance, through the diabolical method of thought control known as "political correctness."

Several years ago I wrote a piece about the subject where I maintained that like many ideals, PC was conceived out of good intentions (such as promoting the idea that all people deserve a fair shake), but over time, people became more concerned with the letter of the law of PC, rather than its spirit. Consequently it became viewed as a restrictive dogma, rather than simply a means to help promote a more tolerant and just society.

A favorite target of the right, the progeny of PC such as college safe zones designed to protect students from speech or ideas they found offensive, were legitimately ridiculed as being responsible for denying free speech as well as producing young adults unable to cope with the slings and arrows of real life. 

But PC opponents went to extremes in opposing virtually everything that political correctness and its adherents stood for. For many years at least in polite society, "racist" was considered the worst thing a person could be labeled. Even ultra-conservative folks bent over backwards to avoid bringing up the subject of race, at least in mixed company.

Not anymore.

Perhaps the shift was the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States. After Obama's election, many white folks felt free to express their long held belief that black people could no longer use the "excuse" of racism for their problems. After all, if a black man could become president, so the theory went, the sky was the limit for African American people in America. Some went so far as to declare that we were living in a "post racial" America. If black people couldn't make it here, they just weren't trying hard enough.

Deep down I think Donald Trump ran for president just to prove that he could be successful, at least in winning his party's nomination. I'm not sure if he ever entertained the possibility that he could actually be elected president, not to mention what he would do once elected. I'm sure his wild success during the Republican primaries was even a surprise to him, where he could say anything he wanted, decry any racial or ethnic minority, or even make the most offensive remarks about women, with complete impunity. Even reports of salacious scandals from his past couldn't hurt him. Donald Trump if there ever was one, was the model of the teflon candidate, nothing ever stuck to him, at least not with his supporters.

Perhaps Trump was warning the American people about voting for him when he told the press on a campaign stop in Sioux Center, Iowa that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City, shoot someone, and still not lose supporters. Those supporters failed to grasp the veiled message Trump was sending, he thought they were so stupid they'd even vote for a homicidal sociopath. Despite that disrespectful remark targeted at them, 62 million Americans voted for him anyway.

It turned out as just about everybody said it would, that being president was much different than running for president. Surely most people thoughtful people reckoned, Donald Trump would not run the country in the same manner he ran his campaign. Unfortunately they were wrong.

It turns out that the job of president means you're supposed to be president of all Americans, not just the ones who loved you at your campaign rallies. That includes the Muslim Americans who were offended by Trump's remarks suggesting they might be terrorists, Mexicans who were offended by his remarks about their countrymen who were entering this country illegally, and former POWs who were offended when he claimed John McCain was not a hero because he was captured during the Vietnam War. "I like people weren't captured" Trump said. Oh yes, there were also women in this country who didn't take too kindly to Trump's boasting of being a sexual predator, and also Gold Star families (of fallen soldiers) after he attacked one of their own.

So how did he do as far as extending an olive branch to those groups of Americans who were not exactly enamored of him? One of his first acts on the job was impose a hastily put together travel ban on six specific countries, all of them predominantly Muslim. That one failed in the courts, three times. He still speaks of building his beautiful wall along the U.S. Mexico border but can't get anybody to pay for it, and continues feuding with John McCain, even as the Arizona senator battles terminal cancer.

While there have been no particularly egregious acts concerning women to my knowledge, the Trump administration has been no friend of issues concerning women's rights, health, and security, as this post which lists "100 ways the Trump administration is harming women and families" points out.

One group that Trump didn't go after during the campaign but has completely alienated since he became president are African Americans. Time and again, Trump has had golden opportunities to make peace with this community in an effort to use his bully pulpit to unify the nation, and time and again, he has dropped the ball. The most notable event took place in Charlottesville, VA, after several groups of white supremacists took over the town one weekend in August, ostensibly to protest the planned removal of a public statue of Civil War general, Robert E. Lee. Those protestors were met with opposition and violence ensued, resulting in the death of one anti-Nazi protestor, and the injuries of several others. Trump was quick to denounce the violence, but unlike the governor of Virginia who told the white supremacists who gathered in his state from all over the country to get out of Dodge pronto, as they were not welcome in his state, Trump punted and said there was fault on all sides. Trump's reticence to condemn Nazi, KKK members, and other hate groups was celebrated as a major victory by white supremacists nationwide.

Reasonable members of his staff must have convinced him to rectify that mistake, which he reluctantly did two days later, only to take it back the next day in unscripted remarks at a press conference which caused his Chief of Staff John Kelly who was standing by his side, to bury his head in his hands. At the same time, Trump addressed the issue of the planned removal of Civil War monuments in the South. Rather than giving a helpful, measured response encouraging dialog and understanding, the president bore down and declared his unequivocal opinion that the statues should remain, the opinions and feelings of millions of black southerners who have to live with monuments to people who enslaved their ancestors be damned.

Then there was the infamous phone call to the young widow of a U.S. soldier (who happened to be black), killed in the line of duty. Trump tried to be compassionate but his words failed him. He could have easily rectified the situation by taking the high road and apologizing to the widow for having been misunderstood. It would have been a remarkable act of compassion which could have gone a long way to make him look like a decent human being who actually cared about people, even black people. But Donald Trump never takes the high road. When the word got out to the public, something that admittedly should never have happened, Trump became defensive and claimed the widow and the congresswoman who listened in on the conversation were lying about what he said, despite the fact that John Kelly explained the words Trump used and why he used them. By his actions, Trump essentially said to the widow of a fallen soldier: "how dare you not appreciate my remarkable generosity taking up my busy day to call you, you ingrate."

One could argue that as Trump was thrust into these situations, in no way do they represent a conscious effort on his part to exacerbate the already cavernous divide between whites and blacks in this country. Perhaps not, but he did make one entirely calculated and deliberate effort to ignite his base at the expense of black people, and whatever was left the of unity in this country.

"Fire those sonsofbitches" he indirectly told NFL owners at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama in front of a hooting and hollering, nearly all white audience. Those SOBs were a handful of black professional football players, protesting police shootings of unarmed people in African American communities throughout the United States, by refusing to stand for the national anthem, taking a knee instead.

Trump found the perfect topic that would not only distract the nation from his malfeasance, but an easy issue to fire up his adoring crowds, giving the narcissistic president some much needed adulation after a particularly tough week. Trump went on to encourage Americans to boycott the NFL in protest of the ten or so players "disrespecting the flag, the anthem, and the armed services." Never mind that the expressed purpose of the protest was to stand up against injustice, and in no way meant to disrespect the flag or our servicemen and women. Never mind that the flag is disrespected all the time, from people wearing it as clothing to companies using it to advertise everything from cars to beer. The president doesn't seem to have any problem with any of that.

The sad thing is that sports was one of the few remaining unifying factors in this nation. I've written before of witnessing the power of sports in bringing total strangers of different races, ethnicities, and creeds together to discuss the big game next weekend. Rooting for a particular team is the one thing that can bring together rich and poor, old and young, white, black and brown, Catholic, Protestant, Jew and Atheist. Even sports rivalries are for the most part in this country friendly disputes, engaging people in lively, spirited, but harmless conversation.

That was until  Donald Trump came along and opened his big fat trap. Again, if he intended to be the president of all Americans, he would have acknowledged the reason why players were taking a knee. He has every right to express his opinion that he does not like the idea of players not standing for the anthem. but he does not have the right to dictate how owners run their business, nor dictate what is or what is not the proper way to show proper respect for the flag. As has been pointed out elsewhere, American soldiers do not fight and die to preserve the right of a president to dictate exactly what it means to be patriotic.

Of course the most sensible thing Trump could have done was not to mention the kneelers at all, and no one would have been the worse off for it.

For whatever reason, it seems to serve Donald Trump's purposes to divide this nation. Some suggest pitting Americans against one another is a strategy designed to create chaos among the citizens of this country who would gladly afford a president draconian powers to restore law and order. With Steve Bannon out of the picture in the White House, that convoluted plan today would seem unlikely. My guess is that Trump is not so sophisticated and has a simpler agenda, he just likes to hear people sing his praises.

If those people happen to be white supremacists, well so be it.

The late author Nelson Algren once wrote that "Chicago lives its life like a drunken L rider who may not know where he's going, but the sound of the wheels beneath his feet lets him know he's going somewhere."

I have a sneaking suspicion that is precisely Donald Trump's modus operandi for running this country. As a result we become more divided as a nation every day. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Annals of the Game

Another baseball season has just wrapped up for my son and his friends, this time with a championship. His fall ball team, a collection of the best players from his park house league, went undefeated, even winning two games from a team comprised of players from his and several of his teammates' high school.

As with every last baseball game of the year for the last few years, the question arises, what next? My son a junior, has a chance to make the high school varsity team, but as the new coach reminded us parents, there are about fifty kids competing for twenty five spots on the the roster. As of now, he's definitely on the outside looking in. Despite the odds, he remains undaunted in pursuing his dream, even with the knowledge that it might end in heartbreak. Truth be told, unless you're one of the few lucky ones to be able to retire on your own terms, baseball careers always end in heartbreak. As they say, if it doesn't kill you, it will only make you stronger.

For me, my days of being a baseball coach are probably over, at least on one of my son's teams. We came over to our present park after several happy years in our local park's Little League program. He didn't make the travel team there a couple years ago and found himself without a team as he aged out of that park's program. We found out about our the park league through some high school friends and teammates who have been playing together for years. Despite that, both he and I were welcomed to the new park with open arms. I can count many of the parents from this league as cherished friends. This summer one of those friends invited me to be an assistant coach on his house league team. Our team, as with the three others in the 16 and under house league, could be divided in three categories, one third of them serious high school ball players, my son included, another third, high school athletes for whom baseball was a part time diversion, and finally a third who played ball just for fun. On our team, one player was playing his first year of any kind of baseball. That's pretty impressive for a teenager. It was that final third who won my heart because such are the wonders and joys of house league baseball.

Fortunately the administration of this particular park league agrees with that assessment. It's been my experience that most parks, our old one included, place most of  their emphasis on the travel team, the serious players who spend much of their summers driving with their parents state to state, from one tournament to another. Not surprisingly the house league teams, made up of kids who just want to have fun, along with the more serious players who are required to play house ball, get the short shrift. Not so with our current league who places fun and sportsmanship above playing to win.
We witnessed that during the last game of our fall ball season today when our coach, with a tenuous 5-2 lead, pulled our most talented player who was cruising along on the mound, for another pitcher who saw little time pitching this season and who in fact, had just come back from an ankle injury. This new pitcher had a little trouble finding the strike zone and with some adept at bats on the other team with players fouling off good pitches and letting the bad ones go, and a little help from some bad calls by the umpires, we found ourselves in the situation of having the bases loaded and nobody out. Our coach then went to the mound, not to bring in a reliever, but to give the sell-shocked pitcher some words of encouragement.

The next batter hit the first pitch well over my son the left fielder's head. It would be his only real play in the field that day but my boy managed to navigate through a crowd of  park visitors deep in the outfield to get to the ball and make a good throw holding the batter to a triple. With the score tied and still nobody out, our coach brought in a more experienced pitcher who now facing the top of their order, managed to strike out the side.

Meanwhile, doing his best to console his brother the previous pitcher, a young man who had been videotaping the game asked his brother if he wanted to see the break of his prodigious curve ball. Devastated, his brother said he didn't want to see anything. I was standing right behind him and it truly broke my heart.

After the game when I told our coach how impressed I was that out of a sense of fair play, he didn't just leave our studly starting pitcher in to finish the game as he easily could have, he told me that he knew our team would score more runs. Which they did to win the game but most importantly, to pick up their friend and teammate who gave up the three runs. Perhaps it was just good luck, or maybe the divine providence of the baseball gods, but with two outs in the last inning, a ground ball was hit to the young man who scooped it up and tossed the ball to second base forcing out the runner for the last play of the game.

And just like that, the season was over, and for many of these boys, my son included, the question of what next, baseball-wise anyway.

They're young men now, they have the rest of their lives in front of them. The future is now in their hands. Some will go on to play college ball, maybe even beyond for one or two of them. For others, the game today might be their last game of organized ball. But hopefully for all of them the memories of their time as friends and teammates in the wonderful world of Gompers Park Baseball will stay with them the rest of their lives.

For the ones who may move on to bigger and better non-baseball related things, they can rest secure in the knowledge that as far as their baseball career was concerned, they went out on top.

The 2017 Gompers Park River Bandits
As our stalwart coach would say, "now how good is that?"