Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Photographs of the Month

October 3

October 3

October 6

October 6

October 7
October 17

October 18

October 21
October 21
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?"

Saturday, October 21, 2017

A New and Predictable Twist

Since my last post was written, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly addressed the nation via a press conference. In it he eloquently spoke of the rituals of taking care of fallen soldiers after their deaths, and what is and is not expected of presidents regarding their contact with the families of the deceased. He said that some presidents call family members, sometimes, and all write letters. As a former general and Gold Star Family member himself, Kelly spoke from the heart with the kind of authority that few people could have. Frankly in my opinion, that part of his monologue was brilliant.

Sgt. La David Johnson
Then he got to the part that explained Donald Trump's seemingly callous words to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of a young U.S. Army Green Beret who was killed two weeks earlier in Niger. Kelly said that President Trump came to him after a press conference where the subject of contacting families was brought up and told him he'd like to call the survivors of the four dead soldiers. Kelly said that he discouraged the president from doing so but Trump insisted, asking Kelly's advice on what to say.

Kelly responded with what a close friend of his told him after his own son was killed after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan. The friend told Kelly something to the effect of, "your son was doing what he wanted to do and was exactly where he wanted to be when he lost his life, defending his country, despite the risks. Perhaps Kelly worded it a little more delicately than the president did to Mrs. Johnson, yet the words had essentially the same meaning. Despite his good intentions, I have to say that Kelly's advice to the president on what to say to Mrs. Johnson and the other family members of soldiers killed alongside La David Johnson, was inappropriate. Kelly's were originally the words coming from one brother-in-arms to another. While the words made perfect sense to Kelly, a lifelong soldier, they certainly must have had a different ring to Mrs. Johnson, a young widow who herself was never in the service, but rather, found herself the victim of it. And unlike Kelly's experience, those words were not delivered by a close friend and comrade who shared common experiences and values, but rather a complete stranger with no military experience of his own.

I have no doubt that President Trump was trying to do the right thing by calling the family members of the fallen soldiers. Kelly warned the president before his calls that, "there is no way that your words will lighten the load of these people."  Wise words indeed, it was just too bad that Kelly couldn't have come up with a more suitable message of comfort, tailor fit for a mother of two with one on the way, who will never get to meet his or her father. Coming up with the right words is certainly no easy task and I do not fault Kelly or Trump for not getting it right.

Kelly's explanation made perfect sense to me and today I completely understand why Trump chose the words he did. But apparently that explanation was not satisfactory for the president who continues to deny he said those words, insisting that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson was lying about the conversation, and implying that his own chief of Staff was lying as well. Instead of leaving well enough alone, the president is perpetuating yet another needless battle that further divides the nation, and making himself look like a complete doofus in the process.

Having listened to Kelly's words in the first portion of his press conference, I was convinced more than ever that Congresswoman Wilson was in the wrong by reporting to the press the contents of the president's call to Mrs. Johnson, which she listed in on via speakerphone. The congresswoman did herself no favors when she later made a comment likening herself to a rock star for all the attention she received after the current imbroglio began this week.  

Yet John Kelly is also guilty of not knowing when to quit. Kelly chose to close his comments with an uncalled for dissing of the U.S. representative from Florida which was framed around a falsehood. Comparing the congresswoman to "an empty barrel that makes the most noise" Kelly recalled the 2015 dedication of an FBI field office in Miami, named after two agents who were killed in the line of duty. Kelly said he was appalled by the congresswoman's "self-serving" remarks at the dedication, claiming that all she spoke of was her own role in bringing the center to her constituents. Tapes of the speech proved otherwise, while she did make a reference to her role in bringing the office to her Miami constituents, (imagine a politician ever taking credit for something!), she also spoke of the role of other lawmakers responsible for the project, whose work “speaks to the respect that our Congress has for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the men and women who put their lives on the line every single day.”

When pressed on the matter of General Kelly's (to put it kindly) memory lapse, White House spokesperson Sarah Hucakabee Sanders doubled down implying that the press was out of line for daring to question the word of a retired four star general.

And so it goes. What happens when our current government, run by people who refuse to take responsibility for even the most trivial error, one who will stop at nothing when it comes to justifying the unjustifiable, are being covered by a highly motivated and competitive  press looking for any angle they can get on a story? In this case, with no act to speak of, just a misunderstanding with a perfectly logical explanation, the story itself, not the act, becomes the story.

What a series of unfortunate, yet predictable events. What a country. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Reciprocity Failure

A friend of mine told me the other day that I was much too quick to criticize Donald Trump. I told him that while I do knock the president early and often, (as it's the Chicago way), there is indeed much to criticize. Still, I took his words to heart and this morning after listening to yet another story that made me cringe, I grudgingly came to the conclusion that in this case, the typical universal condemnation of the president, did not fit the crime.

A little background to the current fiasco in the world of the most powerful man in the world would be in order. On October 4th, four U.S. Army Green Berets, Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright were killed in the western African nation of  Niger. The four men were the victims of an ambush waged by 50 or so individuals allegedly associated with ISIS. Here is a CNN story that chronicles the lives of the four soldiers.

Judging from his tweets, Trump had a busy couple of weeks since the soldiers' deaths. He's tweeted about his negation of the Iranian arms deal, his ongoing attempt to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (and virtually everything related to his predecessor's legacy), his tax "reform" plan, more promises to build his wall along the Mexican border, the continuation of his self-imposed war with James Comey and Hillary Clinton, threats against Senator John McCain, lots of self-congratulation over the stock market, and what has become hands down his greatest crusade, those nasty kneelers in the NFL. So Trump fans, my friend included, must certainly understand how an over-worked president who needs to balance important tweet-time with much needed R&R on the golf course, wouldn't be able to find time in those two weeks to mention the sacrifice of the four soldiers, which he didn't.

It took a press conference the other day where a reporter asked the president about the soldiers that prompted Trump's first public remarks about the tragedy. The conversation took a bizarre twist when the subject turned to the president personally telephoning the soldiers' grieving family members. In typical fashion, Trump hemmed and hawed and made the grossly erroneous comment that his predecessors in the White House did not necessarily call family members. In response, former staff members of President Obama spared no invectives in refuting Trump's assertion about their former boss. And former President George W. Bush's visits to wounded soldiers and grieving family members were well documented. including times when the former president listened silently as he was being excoriated by the bereaved.

When Trump was called on his whopper, he told reporters to ask his Chief of Staff John Kelly if Barack Obama called him after Kelly's son was killed in Afghanistan. Kelly it turns out, received no phone call from Obama but was invited with his wife to a dinner at the White House for Gold Star families (those who lost a loved one in service to the country), where the couple sat at the same table as Michelle Obama.

Now there are at least ten things in this sordid mess that absolutely infuriate me, but the absolute lowest point was Trump using the personal grief of his Chief of Staff, as a stepping stone to weasel out of a pickle. Shame on him was the last thing on my mind when I went to bed last night.

I woke up this morning to the Trump boo boo du jour. The day after the press conference and the kerfuffle over calling families, Trump made four phone calls. One was to Myeshia Johnson, the wife of La David Johnson, the mother of two with another on the way. It so happened that the president reached Mrs. Johnson as she was on her way to receive her late husband's remains that had just arrived from Africa. On her way to the airport, Mrs. Johnson was accompanied by Fredericka Wilson, a Democratic congresswoman from Florida. As the conversation was on speakerphone, Wilson listened in, and was all too eager to go to the press with what she heard. One of those things she heard was the president telling Mrs. Johnson that her husband (whom he did not call by name), signed up for duty so he knew the risks of service. He then reportedly added that he was sure (the soldier's death) hurt despite that.

On the surface this is about the most callous thing anyone can say to a widow en-route to meet her husband's remains. On the other hand, we don't know the full context of the conversation. Granted it's hard to imagine a context where the president's words were anything but boorish, let alone comforting, but let's just say that here that I'm willing to give him the benefit of doubt.

Let's face it, compassion is not one of Donald Trump's strong suits; he just doesn't have a gift for saying the right thing, especially on a personal level. He even said as much during his press conference the other day. As an example, Trump's parting words to a victim of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico were to "have fun." Given that, he was probably right in waiting so long to contact Mrs. Johnson and the other newest members of the Gold Star Family. Come to think of it, if I was grieving over a loved one, the very last person on earth I'd want to talk to would be Donald Trump. Maybe in fact it would be a good idea if he didn't make these calls at all, or at the very least, read from a prepared script that somebody else wrote.

On the flip side, I seriously question the judgement of Congresswoman Wilson's decision to go to the press with this story. I can't judge her motivation but it is not out of the realm of possibility that her comments were personally and politically motivated. If that's the case, the U.S. representative is using the grief of Mrs. Johnson as a means to stick it to Donald Trump.

And if that's the case, shame on her, and shame on all of us for revelling in schadenfreude over Trump's latest misadventure, as it comes at the expense of Mrs. Johnson, her children, the rest of her family, and especially the memory of her husband. The conversation we should be having should focus on remembering Sgt. Johnson and his three brothers in arms, American heroes who gave their lives in service of not only their country, but also the innocent people of Niger who are being terrorized by ISIS. It is not our place to be arguing over what Trump said or didn't say to Mrs. Johnson; that conversation should be between her and the president, no one else.

If we are at all appalled by Trump using Kelly's grief to save his own skin, a sense of fair play should dictate that we should also reject Representative Wilson's self-serving, attention-grabbing actions.

Besides, the president is gracious enough to provide us so much other stuff to legitimately piss us off.