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.