Thursday, December 31, 2020

Building Up to an Awful Letdown

Today is New Years Eve and we are about to say goodbye to a year that few are sorry to see go. For those dying to see the clock strike midnight tonight, all I can say is be careful what you wish for.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, here are some thoughts about a few things that we might, (and I use that term with great care), be saying goodbye to shortly.

Donald Trump - Starting with the most ridiculous of all, if there is a silver lining to the year 2020, at least for the majority of Americans, it's that we'll be saying goodbye at least for the time being, to the cruelest, most corrupt, stupid, inept, incapable and yes evil president we've ever had. The flip side is there are at least 74 million of my fellow Americans who still think he's pretty neat. I'm not sure whom I distrust more, Trump, or the people who support him, but if its the latter, something's gotta give if we ever expect to come together as a nation, especially during times of crisis when we need each other the most. We certainly have not for our current crisis so obviously I'm not very optimistic. After all, if a global pandemic can't bring us together, what can? Stay tuned. 

The Chicago Bears - Yes, my son's and my favorite football team. I've written in this space before, probably many times before, that my favorite day in the fall is the day when the Bears lose a game and it becomes evident that they have no chance of making the playoffs. On that day I officially decide not to care about them meaning I won't have to waste perfectly good Sunday afternoons watching them. Yes I'm truly a fair weather fan of this team, understandably so as they've broken my heart (except for one glorious year), and more poignantly my son's, so many times. Those years where they're terrible from the get-go aren't so bad, it's when they string us along with an exciting season with a good team and collapse in one truly horrendous way or another.

By far the worst heartbreak came a couple years ago during a playoff game here in Chicago against Philadelphia. Down by a couple of points at the end of the fourth quarter and deep in their own territory, the Bears' offense made a valiant drive to get them within relatively easy field goal range. All that separated them from a chance to move on in the playoffs or going home was a very makeable last second field goal. 

In case you don't understand what it feels like to be a Chicago Bears fan, here is a link to a video that will give you an idea. That the call is in Spanish only serves to prove how misery is truly a universal language.

This year the Bears got off to a strong start winning five of their first six games. After that fifth win, the radio voice of the Bears Jeff Joniack, proclaimed that the chances for a 5-1 NFL team to make the playoffs is something like 80%. Never to be a team daunted by favorable odds, the Bears went on to drop their next six games, at times in embarrassing fashion. 

That cherished day when I decided I didn't have to care about them anymore came late this year, on November 29th when the score of their loss to the much despised Green Bay Packers 41-25, didn't come close to describe the complete humiliation of that game. 100-3 would have been a much more accurate score. I did give them one more chance the following week when they actually looked good against a pretty crappy team, the Detroit Lions. But they managed to lose that one as well into the waning minutes of the game.

I asked my son, kind of jokingly after that game if the Bears still had a chance at the playoffs. Turns out they did, one of those cases where one team, in this case the Arizona Cardinals, had to lose a couple of games and the Bears would have to run the table, winning the rest of their games. 

Well wonder of wonders, the Cardinals have so far obliged and the Bears have won their past three in somewhat impressive fashion. Which means this Sunday, if the Cardinals lose to the LA Rams, something quite possible, and the Bears beat, who else, the f-ing Packers, something not very likely at all, they will be in the playoffs, either way, setting the table for another heartbreak.


COVID-19 - Now we come to the 8,000 pound gorilla in the room for the world this year. Between the lives lost, the pain and suffering of their families as well as that of the millions of infected who did not die, 83 million at this writing, the livelihoods lost or put on hold, just to scratch the surface, this kind of genuine, universal suffering has not been experienced by the world since the Second World War. 

It was exactly one year ago when we learned about a strange virus that had been circulating around Wuhan, China. Back then which seems so long ago, for most of us, the virus seemed distant and remote enough to be not threatening. How foolish of of us.

Like any war, there are heroes and villains. We know who the villains are, I already mentioned one of them. But the heroes are countless, starting with the frontline health care workers who with little regard to their own safety, cared for the hundreds of millions of infected, providing not only treatment, but in some cases the only human contact the victims had in the final moments of their lives, so they wouldn't have to die alone. Then there are the workers deemed essential, who kept the world running, again with little regard to their own safety. And the volunteers who gave so much of their time to help out from making masks when there was a shortage of them, to raising funds to help those less fortunate. And on and on and on, there are simply too many heroes of this crisis to mention. If there could be said to have been a silver lining to this dreadful virus, it would have to be the indefatigable spirit of those human beings who put the welfare of others ahead of their own. 

Then of course there are the scientists who put their time and considerable talent into developing the vaccines that will hopefully one day eradicate the virus. As we come to the end of this difficult year, we may be seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Or it might be a fright train heading directly our way, we'll just have to wait and see. 

In either case, one day we will turn the corner with the virus and perhaps the one thing we should all hope for is that while life may return to a sense of normalcy, it won't return to where it was before the pandemic. 

Hopefully our capacity to learn from our mistakes will kick in. But I'm not going to bet the farm on it, we've been here before and seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.  

But wait, I'm not going to end the year on a sour note.

It's traditional at the dawn of a new year, to remember the people we lost the previous year. This year's list is heartbreaking, I wouldn't even know where to start. But global calamities do give us a chance at introspection, looking at our lives finding what is truly important.

In that vein, a friend of mine and former colleague, posted a call for members of a Facebook group devoted to former employees of our place of employment to list the names of colleagues who are no longer living. Dozens of people posted names, some of whom belonged to dear friends of mine, some to others I hadn't thought of for years, and a few of whom I hadn't even realized were dead. What struck me ironically, was something that gave me great hope.

If you'll pardon me, I'm going to quote myself from an appreciation I wrote on my friend's thread:

What this thread makes me realize is that we’re never really dead while there are still people around to remember us. My life has been enriched by so many of these wonderful folks, and to those of you who are reading this as well. And hopefully I’m passing that love and inspiration on to my children, as they God willing will to theirs. I think that’s a good thought on which to end this rather difficult year. 
Life goes on, as George Harrison once said, within you and without you.
With that I wish you a peaceful, prosperous, happy and above all healthy 2021!


Another New Year's tradition, at least around these parts, is to air old Fred Astaire, Ginger Roger movies on TV around 3 or 4 in the morning. As it's hard for me to stay awake that late these days, the following recording of what I think is a very appropriate song given the circumstances will have to do.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Silver Screen Taboo

Christmas came and went softly and gently the other day. We stayed at home just like practically every other day this year, yet had some much needed family togetherness, as nearly one year's worth of family togetherness has kept us anything but together. Funny but I can't remember ever in my life being less excited for Christmas and perhaps that lack of buildup made this one particularly enjoyable and special.

One of the things we did this December 25th was watch a couple movies together, normally a difficult task as finding something the four of us can agree upon is nearly impossible. But we agreed upon a recent film that my wife and daughter had both seen and had their stamp of approval. It was a movie I had my doubts about but was still curious to see.

Released a year ago, Jo Jo Rabbit is set in an unnamed town in Germany during the closing days of World War II. Its title character, 10 year old Johannes "Jo Jo" Betzler, lives alone (or so he thinks) with his mother in a beautifully appointed Jungenstihl era house. We quickly learn that his enigmatic father has been away fighting the war with questionable loyalty to der Vaterland for two years, and his older sister has passed away from an illness.

Home alone much of the time and pretty much left to his own devices, Jo Jo is swept up in nationalistic fervor and is as good a little Nazi as he can be. So much so that his imaginary best friend who provides Jo Jo comfort, advice and much of the humor in the film, is none other than Adolph Hitler himself, (played by the film's director, Taika Watiti).   

Ever since The Three Stooges mocked der Fuhrer with their film short, You Nazty Spy! in 1939, filmmakers have been getting chuckles out of perhaps the most evil person to have ever lived. Understandably however, not too many as the theme has been deemed to varying degrees depending on the current zeitgeist, to be too hot to handle.      

Perhaps the most famous, poignant, and brutally funny takedown of Hitler on film was Charlie Chaplin's 1940 classic, The Great Dictator: 

As with every attempt to portray abject evil in a comic manner, there is a price to pay, In addition to being Chaplin's first fully "talking picture", The Great Dictator marked the last appearance of "Charlot", the name the French gave his beloved Little Tramp character. No doubt Hitler's physical resemblance to Charlot, especially the cropped moustache, led to the character's demise.

The Great Dictator was an American film made during the war but before our entry into it. Many forget there were not a few Americans at the time who like the aviator Charles Lindburgh, were Nazi sympathizers, consequently the film was controversial at the time of its release. Clearly from the scene above, the whole world knew what the Nazis were up to but the true extent of the evil they would perpetrate was not fully revealed. Chaplin later said that had he known before the war what he knew after, he would never have made the movie. 

Nonetheless the film stands as a masterwork of social criticism. The final scene in the movie is a dead-serious speech delivered by Chaplin in the double role as a Jewish barber who is mistaken for the great dictator. Despite the scene having been criticized over the years for its preachy heavy-handedness and sentimentality, it has withstood the test of time:   


Another great film made during the war where laughs are had at the expense of Hitler and the Nazis was Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 To Be or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. By this time the US was at war with Germany and much of the public, including Benny's own father were deeply offended, finding the film inappropriate and in bad taste. 


The period after the war saw loads of films based on WWII, but little can be found in the realm of humor for two decades as the wounds left over from the conflagration were still festering. That all changed in the mid-sixties with the introduction of the hit American TV sit-com, Hogan's Heroes. Set in a German prisoner of war camp, every episode featured an intrepid group of Allied POWS outsmarting their bumbling German captors, led by the foolishly inept Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) and the lovable Sergeant "I Know Nothing" Schultz (John Banner). The show had a long six year run, (longer than the US involvement in the war), testifying to its popularity despite being roundly criticized for being inappropriate and in poor taste. 

In the same era, the mother of all inappropriate Nazi slapstick movies was released, Mel Brooks' 1968 farce, The Producers. In that movie, for my money, one of the funniest ever made, bad taste is the whole point.

The film's two protagonists, an impresario who's fallen on hard times, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his bashful accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) come up with a wild scheme to raise a boatload of money for a show by selling off 25,000 percent of the show's profit. In order to get away with that, they would have to produce the worst play in the world, a show that was bound to flop, guaranteed to close and never be heard from again after opening night. After that, the two would skip town with all the cash, leaving Max's investors, mostly wealthy love-smitten little old ladies in the lurch. 

After a tireless search, Max and Leo come up with their surefire flop: Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.  

All goes along swimmingly during the opening number on opening night: 


Their fatal mistake was the "actor" they picked to play the title role. In the hilarious audition scene, the producers have their pick of sincere, third rate (if that) actors, any one of whom would have been an ideal pick for the disaster Max and Leo had in mind. But after rejecting every last one of the would be Hitlers, in walks Lorenzo St. Dubois, better known by his initials, L.S.D. (Dick Shawn), a stoned, long-in-the-tooth hippie who stumbles into the wrong audition. Despite objections from the play's director Roger DeBris, Max insists L.S.D. be allowed to audition for the role, where with his backup band, a trio of flower children, he sings an anthem to love and flower power which perplexes everyone in the room except for Max who closes the audition with a jubilant: "That's Our Hitler!!!" 

Here in one fell swoop, LS.D. saves the play and in doing so, ruins Max and Leo's dreams of fabulous fortune:

It should be noted that virtually everyone related to these works as writers, directors and actors including The Three Stooges, Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Werner Klemperer, John Banner, Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, and on and on, were Jewish. Perhaps this gives these artists the street cred to pull this kind of thing off, something that members of other ethnic groups who were not victims of the Nazis would lack. 

Now we can add Taika Watiti to that list as well.

Not surprisingly, a lot of folks are turned off by Watiti's Jo Jo Rabbit. Either they understandably find nothing funny about Nazis, they feel that when the film does get serious, it's not appropriately serious, or that its message is not deep enough. 

I suppose the happy-go-lucky, light-hearted nature of the trailer with its upbeat soundtrack of The Monkees, The Beatles and David Bowie singing in German doesn't make it easy to take the film seriously. Neither does the fact that this film, like those mentioned above, is billed as a comedy, which I believe is a stretch.

While it's true that Jo Jo Rabbit doesn't give us the stereotypical, standard issue gravitas we've come to expect from films about its subject, it's certainly no Gay Romp in the Hitler Jugend either. There are some truly horrifying (albeit non-graphic) scenes, one of which is so heart-wrenching that it still haunts me 72 hours after seeing it, and I have no doubt it will stick with me for the rest of my days. 

Perhaps the biggest criticism leveled against the movie is Watiti's portrayal of a kinder, gentler, funny Hitler. However if you've been paying any attention at all, you know that he's not portraying Hitler at all, any more than Dick Shawn was in The Producers. In his case, Watiti is playing an imaginary person conceived in the mind of a ten year old child. That the child should happen to choose this particular "friend" shouldn't come as a surprise given the circumstances of growing up in Nazi Germany. Of course this is a highly personal and idealized Hitler, it would be ridiculous to imagine anyone, especially a child, conceiving the real Hitler as his imaginary friend. That critics take this Hitler mirage so literally is their problem, not the film's. 

What I think makes JJR so powerful is the relationships it develops between the child, played brilliantly by Roman Griffin Davis, and the characters around him, none of whom are exactly what they seem at first. His mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansen giving perhaps the most complex performance of her career), from the outset seems to be the perfect Nazi mom. After all how could a child develop such a fervent passion without the help of a parent? It turns out Rosie is anything but. We learn this first hand when the mother and child stumble upon a gruesome scene of the hanging corpses of several townspeople in the public square. "What did they do?" asks Jo Jo. "Whatever they could" was his mother's terse response. 

Why then one may ask, would Rosie tolerate Jo Jo's fanaticism? Like the film, the answer is both complicated and painfully simple, for his survival of course. Along those lines, Rosie enrolls Jo Jo in a camp of the Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend, sort of the Cub Scouts of the Hitler Youth. She entrusts his safety to another enigmatic character, the commandant of the camp, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) whose true relationship with Rosie remains one of the many unanswered mysteries of the movie.  

Jo Jo's second best friend after pretend Hitler, is Yorki (played by another scene-stealer, Archie Yates), an adorable, pudgy young man who is Jo Jo's bunkmate at Camp Nazi. Jo Jo is far more committed to the cause than Yorki, but his commitment we soon learn is superficial. When the camp counselors tell the children that a good Nazi has to be able to kill, Jo Jo is singled out to come forward, and then told to break the neck of a live rabbit. He can't do it, (hence his pejorative nickname), but with the help of his imaginary friend Hitler, he volunteers to do something that risks his own life, and pays for it dearly. His close encounter with a hand grenade disqualifies Jo Jo from military service and he is relegated to banal tasks such as posting leaflets, while in scenes that are both comic and heartbreaking, little Yorki ends up with a gun, serving with a group of children and old men enlisted to futilely defend the city from the advancing Russian and American armies.

The central relationship in the movie is between Jo Jo and Else (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenager whom he discovers hiding in the closet of his sister's bedroom. Much to Jo Jo's chagrin, he learns that his mother has been hiding Else, a friend of her dead daughter, in order to protect her from the fate of her parents, a one way ticket to the concentration camp. The good little Nazi in Jo Jo feels compelled to turn in the girl to the authorities but Elsa who is six years his senior and a few decades more mature, brings up the obvious fact that turning her in would expose his mother.    

I don't think I'm giving too much away here by saying the two of them come to share a bond which becomes stronger than the one with his pretend friend. Elsa sees right though to the boy's true self when she tells him: "You're no Nazi you're a ten year old kid who likes to dress up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club." For his part, all the official lies he blindly excepted about Jews were dispelled once he actually got to know one. The two young people end up risking their lives for each other, both of them making reckless mistakes that might have proven fatal had it not been for the selfless acts of an unlikely, but very real guardian angel.

One thing that makes Jo Jo Rabbit so interesting is that it is one of the few films I know of that deals with the subject of the lives of ordinary (non Jewish) German people during World War II.  Something I learned years ago that I'm afraid lots of people still don't realize today is that the majority of the German public did not support the Nazis. But like Rosie, those who didn't,  understood that subversion, rather than speaking out was the only practical means of remaining true to oneself AND surviving. 

There are very few real Nazis in Jo Jo Rabbit, most of the characters' loyalty to the party is superficial like Jo Jo's, they are just normal people doing whatever they can to survive the nightmare. Even the real Nazis depicted, six members of the Gestapo who come to ransack Rosie's house hoping to find evidence against her, appear more like exhausted tax accountants on April 14th, just counting the hours until quitting time. Their scene is one of the most interesting of the film, both hilarious with their endless stream of perfunctory Heil Hitlers (a gag borrowed from To Be or Not To Be), and chilling at the same time.

Talk about the banality of evil. 
As I said, Jo Jo Rabbit is not for everyone. Its simple story is off-putting to those who feel the subject deserves more gravity and depth. I have to admit being a little put off myself by its cheeky vibe at the beginning. My wife looked over at me several times during the first twenty minutes or so and commented that I looked like those audience members during the opening number of Springtime for Hitler.  But I became a convert as soon as I realized that complexity and depth does exist in the film, lying just under the surface. If you care to look beyond the superficial its right there for the taking.   

The film's message is simple as can be. It's the same as Chaplin's at the end of The Great Dictator: taking the time to get to know one another helps us understand that we all share a common humanity. In other words, we have more in common with each other than we have differences. Armed with this understanding helps us jettison fear, lies, mistrust, anger, prejudice and hatred of our fellow human beings out the window, just as Jo Jo ultimately does with his pretend friend.  

It's a message we've heard all our lives and should know like the back of our hands. But after the last four years of life under a "leader" who purposefully divided this country by promoting fear, lies, mistrust, anger, prejudice and hatred for his own benefit, clearly it's a message we all need to hear now as much as ever. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Something Discovered While Looking Up Something Else

Once upon a time there was a fixture in U.S. downtowns usually found near theaters and other high traffic pedestrian areas. They were folks, most always men, who snapped photographs of passersby, then handed them an envelope with a number that corresponded to the negative that was just shot. That was normally the extent of the contact between the photographers and their subjects, in my experience anyway, few if any words were ever exchanged. The hope was that a certain number of subjects would stick money into the envelope, throw it in the mail, then a few weeks later receive a print of the photograph that was taken.

As a child I was the subject of dozens of these photographs made both in Chicago and Milwaukee, but my parents, grandparents, or whichever adult I was with at the time, never took the time to send back the envelope.

It was understandable at the time because many people feel uncomfortable about photographs of themselves, especially caught unawares as most of these subjects were. But it was a shame as well because years after they are made, these photographs, many of which are discovered after spending decades inside a shoebox, become precious artifacts, historic records of people and places often long gone.

I know this to be a fact because at the wake of a dear friend's beloved aunt, one of the photographs displayed was of the two of them walking together hand-in-hand on Chicago's Randolph Street, made perhaps forty years earlier when my friend was about five years old. The woman obviously loved her nephew so much that she not only took the time to send in the money for the keepsake, but also managed to preserve it for the rest of her life.  

The other day as I was searching the web collecting tidbits for my previous post, I came across this post which features photographs taken along Wisconsin Avenue in Downtown Milwaukee, some of them made by these "street photographers" such as this one: 

On its own it's a compelling image of a young couple out on the town. From their attire and hairstyles, one can date the photograph fairly accurately. Someone familiar with the city in that particular time could pinpoint the exact location where it was made.

The young man has a determined look on his face, to me his body language suggests he's in a hurry, maybe they were late for a show. The woman on the other hand looks like she hasn't a care in the world, taking in the sights of what must have been a lovely evening. Or maybe not, not knowing these people we can ascribe all sorts of meaning to this photograph which is one of the joys (and dangers) of the medium of photography. 

But in this case we do have a story. From the blog post, here's Shirley Ann Huberty's account of the photograph of her parents: 
My mom and dad in 1946 taken in Downtown Milwaukee on Wisconsin Ave. In those years they had street photographers that would snap pictures of people walking. After taking the picture they would hand you a piece of paper where you could order the picture. I love this picture of them! My mom was 21 years old here!
Shirley's sister Bonnie adds this:
The picture is of our parents Robert L. Watson and Jeanne S. Stephan. They married in September 1947 and went on to have three daughters, ... five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Mom passed away just before Christmas at 95 years. She lived alone in their home after my dad passed in 2008.

In a typical studio photographic portrait, subjects and photographers usually do their utmost to create a flattering "respectable" image, one in which the subject feels best represents him or herself, one in which they'd like to be thought of or remembered. These are the images usually chosen to represent people in yearbooks, annual reports, and in many other sorts of publications, yes including obituaries. In that sense they are not unlike the death masks that used to be made of prominent people.

By contrast, these random street portraits capture the subjects living their lives. They may not always be flattering like this one is, but there is never the artifice of a posed portrait, they are always real, at least real insofar as depicting a split second of a person's life.  

In this photograph lovingly preserved by their family, Robert and Jeanne are alive, forever in their twenties, a young couple in love with most of their lives still in front of them. 

Which only confirms something I've realized for a good long time, photography is truly magic.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Grand Avenue

The title of this post makes me think back to the smile I used to get upon hearing a particular recorded announcement on the Red Line Subway in Chicago. When the train approached the Grand Avenue station, the canned voice of the CTA would call out the stop with a hearty: 


Unfortunately about ten years ago, someone saw fit to change the announcement to a more subdued: "this is Grand and State", the official name of the station. 

I always wondered how Grand Avenue in Chicago got its name. Granted, it is a major street, an east/west thoroughfare that extends the entire width of the city and well beyond into the suburbs. The fact that it doesn't run perfectly due east and west for its entirety is a sure sign that the street is older than Chicago itself and its rigid street grid system. As is the case with about a dozen major streets in this city, Grand Avenue follows what was once a Native American trail. 

Grand is an interesting street, especially for a lover of all things urban like me. It's neither pretty nor glamorous.  In its course it runs through a wide variety of neighborhoods from the trendy River North section of town, to the more rough-and-tumble sections of the West Side which themselves are going through transformations as city neighborhoods are wont to do. If you were to travel the entire length of Grand Avenue east to west from Navy Pier to where it exits the city proper at Harlem Avenue, your general impression is that the street is, and especially was, predominantly industrial.

Interesting as such, but what exactly is grand about it?

How DID it get its name?

Through many hours of tireless research, (wink wink), I learned that in the year Chicago was incorporated, 1833, its first chief executive Thomas Jefferson Vance Owen declared his toddling town to be "a grand place to live." One of the main streets at the time in the town of Chicago was you guessed it, and the name has stuck to this day. 

Granted, not a terrific story but it's the best I could come up with.

Grand isn't the only street in Chicago history to boast that lofty title. If you travel down Martin Luther King Drive on the city's south side roughly between 35th and 63rd Streets, it's not too difficult to understand why that stretch of road was once named Grand Boulevard. In stark contrast to its north side namesake, the former Grand Boulevard, part of this city's magnificent Park and Boulevard System,  is still one of Chicago's most beautiful, historic and significant streets. Decades of hard times and neglect due to segregation caused by systematic racism hasn't changed any of that. 

For reasons unknown to me, perhaps just to avoid confusion with the north side street, Grand Boulevard was re-named South Park Avenue in 1923, then South Parkway in 1940. In July of 1968, it was re-named to honor the memory of the recently assassinated civil rights leader.  

Much like Chicago's Grand Boulevard, ninety miles to the north, Milwaukee's Grand Avenue was once lined by the mansions of the wealthy, but even more so. In fact, many of the most prominent Milwaukeeans of the 19th Century, the folks whose names you still see all over town by the things named after them, had Grand Avenue addresses.  

Originally named Spring Street, the east/west thoroughfare was so opulent that perhaps as a marketing gimmick by local burghers to lure tourists (which succeeded), the street was re-christened Grand Avenue in 1876. According to this article in the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, some Milwaukeeans at the time rolled their eyes and scoffed at the notion, saying a more appropriate name might have been "Snobby Avenue." 

Milwaukee's Grand Avenue ran from what was then the western border of the city, east to the Milwaukee River. Wisconsin Avenue, the street which continued east of the river to the lake, was the heart of Downtown. As Downtown Milwaukee expanded west of the river, a new streetcar line was built making The Avenue (as it is still affectionately referred to) a commercial thoroughfare. This encouraged the construction of apartment buildings and commercial enterprises increasing population density. As Grand Avenue became a trifle less grand (in other words, exclusive), and the original Cream City movers and shakers began to die off, their offspring pulled up stakes and moved to the tony suburbs, still exclusive to this day. 

In 1926, Grand Avenue ceased to be (in name only) as the city merged the east and west portions of the street into one Wisconsin Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare, Milwaukee's equivalent of Chicago's State Street. Today there is barely a trace of the opulence of Grand Avenue of old as virtually all of the mansions that lined the street are long gone. One exception is the Wisconsin Club, housed in the former mansion of railroad magnate Alexander Mitchell (whose grandson General Billy Mitchell was influential in the development of US military aviation during WWI, AND for whom Milwaukee's airport is named). The other is a museum in the former mansion of Frederick Pabst, a name that is perhaps familiar to you if you know anything about beer.  

If you know your Chicago history, the fate of Milwaukee's Grand Avenue might sound familiar as the stretch of Michigan Avenue originally known as Pine Street north of the Chicago River, concurrently underwent a similar transformation. Another example of typical early 20th Century American urban transformation albeit fictitious, is portrayed in Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. 

As I've mentioned time and again in this space, I have a particular love of Milwaukee as it's a city that I've been visiting all my life. My grandparents, (well my grandmother and surrogate grandfather) used to take me there every summer, starting when I was about four years old. Why Milwaukee I'm not certain, we had no family there. My guess is that my Hannover born surrogate grandfather, Mr Willie as we all called him, must have felt at home with the German culture of the town. We'd always stay at the Schroeder, (today Hotel Milawukee City Center), a massive 1920's hotel located on Wisconsin Avenue and 5th Street, five blocks west of the river, and make a pilgrimage to at least one of the classic German restaurants, Maders or the late, great Karl Ratszch's. And certainly no visit to Brewtown was ever complete without a brewery tour. 

Visiting a place periodically as we did, makes one particularly aware of change. Over the span of the years of our visits, roughly 1962 through 1974, I personally witnessed dramatic changes to the neighborhood immediately surrounding our hotel.

One of my earliest memories of Milwaukee was the frenetic energy of Wisconsin Avenue which by the time I first came on the scene in the early sixties, was probably already on the decline. Wisconsin Avenue really did mirror State Street in Chicago's Loop in many ways; one was that the further you moved up the street, in the case of Wisconsin Ave., the closer you got to the lake to the east, the more upscale things got. East of the Schroeder was the major retail section of the city with the big department stores such as Gimbel's and the Boston Store. The really refined shopping, I suppose Milwaukee's version of The Magnificent Mile in Chicago, was between the river and the lake. The Avenue west of the Schroeder had a slightly more working class feel. From the get go, my grandparents and I explored the Avenue both east and west of the hotel.

Something that really caught my attention as a four year old and have never forgotten, was an enormous illuminated billboard attached to the side of a tall building which I believe was the 1930 Art Deco Wisconsin Tower (originally the Mariner Tower), just west of the hotel. Here is a photo pulled off the Web, made around 1935 which shows in the background, the tower on the left with an early iteration of its billboard, and the Schroeder Hotel in the center. 

An interesting testament to the dual nature of the Avenue east and west of the hotel is that viewed from the posh east, the sign-less silhouette of Mariner Tower, made for an elegant contribution to the skyline whereas from the day to day west, the enormous billboard gave off an entirely different vibe, especially at night when it evoked the feeling of film noir or a hard boiled detective novel.

Incidentally, advertised on that sign c.1963 was Canfields 50/50 Soda which is still produced. To this day every time I pass a six-pack of 50/50 at the store I'm immediately transported back to that time and place.

Another indelible memory of the Avenue west of the Schroeder is that of the Holloway House Cafeteria, which we frequented every visit until its closing. Back in those days, before restaurant cream came in packages hermetically sealed at the factory, it was served in little glass containers made to contain exactly one serving of cream for a cup of coffee. At that particular establishment, those little shot glasses had the image of Elsie the Cow, the symbol of the Borden Milk Company imprinted upon them. I'm not sure how one came into my possession, either we asked for it or my grandmother just slipped it into her purse, something she wasn't beyond doing, but that little cream container became one of my most cherished possessions as a small child. Call it my Rosebud moment, it disappeared long ago, but the memory remains. If my last word on this earth happens to be "Elsie", you'll know what I'm referring to.

At the same time, I remember the construction of a twenty story office tower just west of our hotel. The construction took place over several visits and I remember being fascinated by the progress of the tower from visit to visit. Unfortunately the completed building, once known as the Clark Building, now referred to simply by its address, 633 Wisconsin, has to be one of the ugliest buildings in the city, if not the nation. Built in a truly uninspired Modernist style, soul-less buildings such as this one I believe, contributed to the general public's repulsion for contemporary architecture. Making matters worse, the building housed the city's Greyhound Bus terminal which I have no doubt contributed to the steady decline of the neighborhood west of the hotel. By the time of our last visit, that part of the Avenue, what remained of it that is, became seedy and run down. 

By our last visit, (Mr. Willie died in 1976),  the shopping avenue east of the hotel remained intact albeit in somewhat faded glory. Again it's a story repeated time and again in major urban areas all across the country as downtown shopping districts began their slow and steady decline after WWII when the middle class began to follow the well-to-do into the suburbs. The advent of the suburban "shopping center" attracted customers by their readily available parking and the one quality that reigned supreme in those days, they were new. Nonetheless, in the sixties and into the early seventies when I was still a child, going downtown with the theaters, the big stores and their fancy restaurants, was still special. 

Unfortunately not special enough to make it feasible to keep those establishments afloat. In Downtown Milwaukee as in virtually every other big city downtown in the United States, one by one, stores, restaurants and theaters that had been fixtures for decades began to shut down.       

Clearly thought the urban planners, something was drastically wrong with the design and even the concept of Downtown as we knew it. The idea was that the heavy street traffic on major shopping avenues was not conducive to a pleasant shopping experience. One of the earliest and most successful attempts to transform an American central business district was Niccolet Mall in Minneapolis. There, eight blocks of the main thoroughfare, Niccolet Avenue, were shut off from vehicular traffic, except for public transportation. Trees were planted making for a park-like atmosphere. In addition, indoor arcades were constructed to connect adjacent shops, and skyways were built to traverse streets, enabling visitors to roam from shop to shop in virtually all of Downtown Minneapolis without having to go outside, something very welcome especially during the brutal Minnesota winters. 

Eventually cities all over the country emulated Niccolet Mall in one or more of its features. In Chicago, the commercial section of State Street like Niccolet Avenue, was closed to vehicular traffic except for busses. The sidewalks were widened somewhat, public sculptures were installed, and trees were planted in the median. One problem was that so many busses still ran up and down State Street, that the steady stream of them in addition to the reduced width of the roadway, created a constant traffic jam and pollution, even worse than before, completely defeating the purpose of a supposedly user-friendly pedestrian mall. Another problem was that the mall was created during the period that was probably the nadir of design in the United States, when architects had little or no interest in creating work that had any respect for what existed before. Consequently the thing looked awful, even when it was new. Thus the State Street Mall was doomed from the outset and removed in 1996.

Milwaukee took the opposite approach. Like State Street, Wisconsin Avenue was the major artery for bus traffic, which is the only form of public transportation in that city. So they turned inward and created and indoor mall which connected all the shops on the south side of the Avenue with bridges and skyways. They already had a head start as the lovely Plankington Building, named after another former resident of Grand Avenue, banker an industrialist John Plankington, was designed in 1916 with an indoor atrium that (nearly but not quite) rivals the Cleveland Arcade in its beauty as an interior space.   

Plankington Building
as part of the Grand Avenue Mall, c. 1983

The indoor mall which extended from the Boston Store all the way east to the old Gimbel's which was by then re-branded as Marshall Fields, was given a very appropriate historical name, The Grand Avenue.

Unlike the State Street Mall, which was not only hideous but barely transformed its surroundings, The Grand Avenue, indeed something completely different, was a rousing success from the outset, drawing people back downtown, not just from the Milwaukee area, but from all over the state, as my wife can testify. 

Not surprisingly, much of its appeal, something Chicago never addressed, was the ample parking created to accommodate the new mall. A massive parking lot with an indoor connection to the facility was built, and an entire square block at Wisconsin and 5th, across the street from the Schroeder was levelled to provide even more parking. 

One unfortunate result of the mall is that it sapped all the life out of Wisconsin Avenue. Consequently the businesses that existed on the north side of Wisconsin, across the street from the Grand Avenue, were left to wither and die, which they eventually did. 

Within about a decade, the novelty of the Grand Avenue wore off, and it too began to fade. Unlike the State Street Mall which could be simply swept away returning the street to some semblance of its past, the damage wrought upon Wisconsin Avenue between the river and 5th Street thanks to the Grand Avenue Mall was much more profound. 

Here is a link to a thoroughly depressing 2017 YouTube video made by a guy who created a series of videos of dying shopping malls. 

Despite my family's continued visits to Milwaukee through the years, the Grand Avenue Mall fell off my radar about thirty years ago. After all was said and done, it was just another mall; we have lots of them here in Chicago just like it, so there was absolutely no reason to visit it because as I've pointed out time and again, there's plenty to see and do in Milwaukee. But in our most recent visit last week, my sports fan son wanted to see Fiserv Forum the new Milwaukee Buck's stadium downtown. After that we decided to take a drive west on Wisconsin Avenue before heading home. 

Sure enough much to our mild dismay, the Grand Avenue is no more. Turns out, one year after the dying mall video was made, the doors were finally closed and currently the space is being redeveloped as a mixed use business-residential-retail center. That means the grand old Wisconsin Avenue I knew as a child, save for the Schroeder Hotel, is gone for good. 

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Cities need to re-invent themselves from time to time in order to survive. In addition to being a hub for business and government, Downtown Milwaukee is still thriving as a sports, entertainment and convention center and as such, an economic engine for the rest of the city. Needless to say it took a hit during the pandemic. Hardest of all I'm sure was the cancellation of the Democratic National Convention which was scheduled for this past summer. 

But if by chance it doesn't bounce back from that hit, Milwaukee I'm sure will re-invent itself yet again, it just does that. 

Milwaukee, more than any city I know, seems to live its life inspired by these words of the character Eugene Morgan from The Manificent Amersons:
There aren't any old times. When times are gone, they're not old, they're dead. There aren't any times but new times.
For those of us who are not pleased with that, well we always have our memories to comfort us. 

Speaking of which, Elsie, where are you?

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Last Obstacle

This week's confirmation and late night swearing in of Justice Amy Comey Barrett sealed the deal for ultra-right lawmakers in their quest to pack the court with like-minded judges, in both the Supreme and the Federal Courts. As they say, presidents come and go but judges are in for life, so the legacy of the unholy alliance of Trump/McConnell, regardless of the outcome of next week's election will no doubt last for decades.

The good news is that judges are supposed to be independent minded people in theory anyway, swayed more by the law rather than ideology, which is why justices on occasion surprise us with their rulings. Such was the case in 1973 when the landmark Roe vs. Wade case was decided. The majority opinion was written by Justice Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee. Blackmun was expected by many, presumingly the president as well, to be another loyal foot soldier for the conservative agenda, but he was anything but that. In his numerous biographies, Blackmun is often sighted as the most liberal justice of his day.

Of course those were different times. The vote in favor of the ruling that decided our government could not stand in the way of a woman's right to obtain a legal abortion within the first trimester of her pregnancy was 7-2. Six of those seven votes were cast by Republican appointed justices. Justice Byron White a Democratic appointee voted in the minority.

According to Blackmun, that ruling was a critical step in the long struggle for the emancipation of women. Depending upon your point of view, that statement is either a clarion call for equality between the sexes, or the signature on a blank check enabling the murder of millions of innocent children. The abortion issue is undeniably our most heartbreakingly divisive issue. Simply put, compromise is elusive if not outright impossible.

Yet in order to heal the vast wounds this country is facing, how are we going to proceed without coming toward some semblance of compromise?

As I've mentioned in this space before, I've struggled with the issue of abortion for over forty years, ever since the first time a woman felt the need to tell me she missed her period. Either through prudence or just dumb luck, I never had to be party to a decision on what to do about an unwanted pregnancy that I was fifty percent responsible for. Nevertheless I've spent countless sleepless nights since then pondering the issue and how we as a nation should come to grips over the laws regarding abortion in this country.

Despite having been a settled issue for nearly fifty years now in the courts, abortion has been anything but settled in the court of public opinion. To be sure I've had strong opinions over the past 40 plus years. Yet those opinions were based upon arguments that I never really considered air tight. Inevitably moral and ethical questions would come up that would challenge my position. Not until recently had the last obstacle to my opinion been removed, at least for the time being. I'll get to that later.

First I'd like to walk through three separate but entangled categories that need to be evaluated when making up one's mind about how our country should proceed at a time when the overturning of Roe v. Wade is a very distinct possibility.


Some might be surprised to learn as I was that a century before Roe v Wade, abortion was legal in the United States, so long as it was performed before fetal movements could be perceived (around the 20th week of a pregnancy), It's also commonly thought that Roe v Wade opened the door for legal abortion in this country, but that's a slight overstatement. At the time of the decision some states already had liberal abortion laws. Others banned it completely, while still others allowed abortion only in certain circumstances such as in the case of rape or incest, or where the mother's life was compromised. This last case formed the basis of one of the arguments in the lawsuit against the State of Texas that would result in Roe v Wade. The litigants argued that the Texas law outlawing abortion except when the health of the mother is threatened was ill defined, vague and arbitrary, and therefore unconstitutional.

More famously, the litigants argued that the abortion law violated a woman's right to privacy, which as they claimed, was guaranteed by the first, fourth, fifth, ninth and fourteenth amendments of the Constitution.

Legal scholars on both sides of the abortion debate have argued that in regards to the privacy issue, Roe v Wade stands on rather flimsy ground, some going so far to claim the justices pulled the notion that the Constitution guarantees the right to privacy "out of thin air." .

Foreseeing this problem, in his opinion Justice Blackmun wrote this:
The Constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy. In a long line of decisions, however, the Court has recognized that a right of personal privacy, or a guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy, does exist under the Constitution.
Among those rulings cited by the court were Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters which both involved parental control over childbearing, and Griswold v. Connecticut, which overruled that state's ban on the use of contraceptives among married couples.

The dissenting opinion to Roe, written by Justice William Rehnquist, challenged the extent to which the majority interpreted the five amendments' application of privacy as it concerned abortion, and a in a separate dissent, Justice Black argued on behalf of the rights of the unborn. 

You may ask what rights exactly does the constitution provide the unborn? Well the fourteenth amendment is rather clear in its definition of who is entitled to equal protection under the law. Here is section one:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Notice the word "born". It does not say conceived. One could interpret this clearly to mean that under the Constitution at least, the unborn have no discernable rights. 

Sounds heartless doesn't it? 

But anyone with any bit of sense understands that there is a world of difference between a one week old embryo and a nine month old fetus and everything that comes between in terms of consciousness, cognitive ability, the ability to feel pain, and a whole slew of other traits that make a human being, human. Because of this, the majority declared that the right of a woman's privacy regarding her pregnancy was not absolute. Rather Roe would only apply to the first trimester of a pregnancy, after that it was back in the hands of the states:
A State may properly assert important interests in safeguarding health, maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life. At some point in pregnancy, these respective interests become sufficiently compelling to sustain regulation of the factors that govern the abortion decision. ... We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.
— Roe, 410 U.S. at 154.
In essence one could say that both sides were pulling their conclusions out of thin air, as quite obviously the authors of the constitution and its subsequent amendments did not address the issue of abortion. 

This is where the ninth amendment comes in. At her hearings, Justice Barrett was questioned about this important yet vague portion of the Constitution which states: 
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
In other words, the rights described in the Bill of Rights, are not the only rights citizens the United States are afforded. Common sense should dictate that certain rights such as the right to privacy, while not explicitly stated in the constitution, is a basic enough right to stand on its own and the protection of it is in fact the very basis for the existence of the fourth, fifth and fourteenth amendments.

However the ninth amendment in this case is a double edged sword. Certainly the right to life is the right that trumps all others. Those against abortion claim that life does not begin at birth but rather at conception, so the unborn victims of abortion in their view are being denied that very basic right. Again the majority and Justice Blackmun saw that one coming:
We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, in this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.
— Roe, 410 U.S. at 159.
But by making the end of the first trimester the cutoff point for personal privacy, isn't the Court determining in effect that to be the beginning of life? Yes we can argue this point forever.

In this interview with Justice Blackmun, Bill Moyers points out that the constitution is malleable, it can adapt to the prevailing current in which society operates at any given time. He uses a few examples including the fact that before 1865, the very same Constitution we observe today, allowed slavery.

Given that, as much as we want our Constitution to be the crystal ball that gives us the definitive answer to all our questions regarding which rights are ours and which are not, we have to look elsewhere. 


Laws whether they be statutory or ethical, do not exist in a vacuum. When a new law is enacted, it has consequences, many of which are not intended. 

I suspect that the vast majority of so called "Pro-lifers" haven't put much thought into considering all that a post Roe v Wade United States would entail. First of all, it wouldn't ban abortion in this country, rather it would leave that discretion completely up to the states. It is very likely that we would return to where we were before 1973 when every state had its own set of laws regarding the procedure from abortion on demand, to an outright ban, to the many intermediate stops in between. 

Women seeking abortions in states that prohibit them, if they have the means to do so, could travel to another state to obtain one. Or if they have the extra means, they might hire a doctor willing, for a steep price of course, to perform the procedure in the comfort of her own home, naturally without telling anyone. Women who don't have the means for either, might resort to what were once known as a "back alley abortion", performed by someone who shall we say would have a significantly lower skillset and toolkit than a bonafide doctor or midwife. Or she could try to induce an abortion herself. 

My point is that legal or not, if a woman wants an abortion, she will find a way to get one, even at the risk of her own life and liberty. 

Another issue is enforcing the ban on abortions. What kind of punishment will be meted out to people who violate the law? Most supporters of the repeal of Roe v Wade assure us that no, women seeking abortions would not be punished, but rather those who provide them. OK what then about women who induce themselves to miscarry? 

Well that's a different story...

It is entirely conceivable that women who induce their own abortions would indeed be prosecuted. Which brings up the dystopian scenario of women who miscarry for whatever reason, (between 10 and 20 percent of all known pregnancies) being required by law in certain jurisdictions to undergo an official investigation to determine the cause of her miscarriage. Never mind the governmental intrusion during a particularly traumatic and painful moment in a woman's life. Remember the Supreme Court in overturning Roe v Wade will have determined that no, the Constitution does not guarantee the right to privacy when it comes to reproduction. So you can forget about the protection of the fourth amendment which bans unreasonable searches, If overzealous police or prosecutors determine there is cause to believe a crime has been committed, i.e.: a possible self-induced abortion, what's to stop them from investigating miscarriages as long as they obtain the proper warrant from a judge? 

Then there's the issue of the severity of the punishment. If abortion is indeed regarded as murder, it would certainly qualify as first degree, premeditated murder. In some states, the punishment for first degree murder is the death penalty. Crazy as it may sound, yes I have heard people seriously suggest that as a possibility. That would mean in our country,  an action that is entirely legal in one state could land you on death row in another. 

That is truly un untenable situation in my book.


Regardless of your status as a believer or not, it all boils down to right and wrong, at least one's interpretation of it. I chose the word philosophical here because it covers both morality, (the domain of the believer) and ethics, (the domain of the non-believer). Years ago I had a conversation with a dear friend who is blessed with an impeccable moral/ethical compass. We were discussing the death penalty and both agreed that the institution is patently immoral. Playing the devil's advocate I brought up the (long since disproven) argument that it is less costly for society to execute prisoners rather than it is to incarcerate them for their natural lives. Without missing a beat she told me it doesn't matter in the slightest, issues of morality trump issues of practicality, period. 

I bring that up because nagging questions still persist. My mantra for a while now has been this: "Abortion may be a choice, but it is always a terrible choice that sometimes has to be made. Who then should make that choice?" 

The crux of my argument for a very long time has been that if we allow abortion only under certain circumstances such as health of the mother or rape or whatever, where does one draw the line between what is a justifiable abortion and what is not,  and more importantly, who should be responsible for drawing that line? My answer always comes back to one person, the mother.  

The problem with that logic is this: Laws are enacted by and large to protect innocent people from harm. As I don't buy the argument that the unborn are not people, ethically shouldn't I support a law that prohibits the taking of their lives? 

In other words, am I choosing a practical solution over a much less practical but more ethical one? 

The fact is, I still am troubled with abortions that are solely a form of birth control as they are the willful taking of innocent human life. And I have many misgivings about folks in the "Pro Choice" movement who deny or simply ignore that inconvenient fact.  

On the other hand, I know from personal experience that many resources are required to be a parent, and only one of them is money. Truth be told, there are many people who lack the commitment, the courage, the love, the compassion, yes the money but most important, the desire to be parents. Morally and ethically speaking, can an argument be made that abortion might in fact be preferable to forcing a child to be born into a household where he or she is unwanted, unloved and abused?  Which begs the question: is life always preferable to death? Quite frankly I don't have the answer to that question.

After more sleepless nights I came upon the last obstacle mentioned above to my opinion. It revolves around morality and practicality and should in my opinion be applied to the law as well. And as it turns out, the answer is remarkably simple. 

It is a question I have for people who oppose abortion on moral/ethical grounds, including myself. The question is this, what is our objective in the struggle over abortion? I would hope the answer to that question is for there to be fewer abortions. I doubt there are many people in the world who would not agree that would be a good thing. Then from a practical standpoint we must next ask ourselves what is the most reasonable and effective way to accomplish that. 

As I proposed above, making abortion illegal will probably not result in significantly fewer abortions. I admit that to be purely speculation but can provide a vivid parallel. For years in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, well intentioned folks preached of the evils of alcohol and the very real damage it was causing society. So in order to "solve" the problem, on January 17, 1920, the United States became officially dry as the government prohibited the distribution, transportation, sale and possession of intoxicating beverages. 

While it's true that the overall number of drinkers in the country decreased, Prohibition wreaked so much havoc in terms of the development of Organized Crime which was well positioned and more than happy to quench a thirsty US, that December 5, 1933 marked the end of the noble experiment and abject failure. 

I have no doubt that the possible overruling of Roe v. Wade will wreak similar if not worse havoc to this country, endless lawsuits being just a minor one, while at the same time preventing few abortions.

I propose there are far more effective ways to achieve fewer abortions in this country than new state laws. One is to make the path easier for parents with lesser means to support their children. By that I mean governmental support. This means higher taxes, the money has to come from somewhere. Another is to ensure universal healthcare. 

Another method to achieve fewer abortions is to help prevent unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately abstinence is not the answer. Yes it is the most effective method of birth control in theory but in practice it's the least. Contraception needs to be made available, easily accessible, and dirt cheap if not free. And again, that will cost money. 

Oh but contraception is against your religion you say? Well it's your choice, abortion, or contraception. If you are Catholic as I am, you should be more than a little put off by your church's sanctimonious stance on human sexuality when in fact it has lost all moral authority on the subject. I'm sorry to say this but any institution that can't or won't control the deviant, criminal, sexual abuses of its own clergy, has no business telling anyone how to behave when it comes to sex.

Let's face it, if we feel we are taking the moral high ground by opposing abortion, and are truly committed to fewer abortions, then we need to take moral responsibility and put our talent and treasure toward assisting struggling families and helping prevent unwanted pregnancies. It will also help if we show a little more love and compassion toward our fellow human beings, rather than spewing hatred and placing blame on people trying to make the most difficult decision of their lives.

It may not be as much fun as marching for the repeal of Roe and screaming epithets about people going to go to hell for supporting abortion, but it will be a lot more effective if what we truly want is fewer abortions, rather than merely punishing people. 

On the other hand if all we're interested in is overturning Roe, then sitting back and saying our work is finished, well in the words of the Benedictine Sister Joan Chichester that I've published in this space before:
I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
So the last obstacle to my deeply held belief that Roe vs. Wade should stand is this simple realization: laws do not solve all of our problems. Well intentioned or not, laws always have unintended consequences. In order to evaluate whether or not to implement a new law, or in the case of the Supreme Court, pave the way for such a law, much thought and reason must go into realistically evaluating how much the law will actually address the problem it was created to fix, as well as an honest and thorough examination of all the unintended problems it could create. 

As I said above, laws do not exist in a vacuum, they effect for better and worse, the lives of everyday people. If a new law regardless of its good intentions, creates untold anguish and suffering on top of not having much chance to fulfill its very purpose, then quite honestly we are much better off without it. 

It is my strong opinion that the Pandora's box of new state abortion laws enabled by the potential overturning of Roe vs. Wade, perfectly fits that description, and I respectfully urge the members of this Supreme Court to look beyond their ideological and religious biases, to the potential  suffering these new laws could bring to countless of Americans, and then rule accordingly.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

One Nation Indivisible

A couple weeks ago I responded to a social media inquiry about why certain people choose to avoid the term "under God" in the United States Pledge of Allegiance. It's very simple I said, those words were not part of the original pledge when it was written in 1892, but were added during a period of religious fervor in the 1950's.* "But they're there now, why not just say them?" was the response. Well I said, some people simply don't believe in God and it goes against their beliefs to pledge to a God in which they do not believe.  

That didn't go over too well with my friend, a staunch, God-fearing Trump supporter.  

To him this president represents what many believe to be the traditional American values stated in the pledge that every American schoolchild is indoctrinated with from a very early age. But like every oath, pledge, anthem, prayer, or poem that is hammered down our throats as children, we sure enough memorize the words, but often overlook their meaning. 

Thinking about that discourse for several days, it dawned on me that much of the current division in our country can be illustrated in very simple terms, the way different people read the Pledge of Allegiance. 

To my friend as I'm sure to many, two words stand out above all: flag and God. That's why people on the extreme right venerate the pledge while those on the other side of the political spectrum tend to keep it at arm's length. After all, what other democracy in the world demands their children start their school day pledging allegiance to their flag and country? None as far as I know. 

Knowing this full well, this president has gone out of his way to publicly demonize people whom he sees as not paying the flag and other symbols of this country such as the national anthem, the respect they deserve. He personally has taken public displays of affection with the American flag to unheard of levels, often humping poor, unsuspecting flags as if they were porn stars.

This president is nothing if not fond of self-aggrandizing symbols. Perhaps the most indelible of these is his (in)famous stroll across the White House Lawn and through Lafayette Park for a photo-op of himself standing in front of St. John's Episcopal Church holding a bible. It took place during the civil unrest that was going on all across the country shortly after the death of George Floyd. In order to reach the church, the president's path was cleared by police and National Guard personnel using smoke canisters, shields, pepper balls and old fashioned billy clubs to bloody the heads of demonstrators, members of the press, and anybody else who got in their way.

To the president's admirers, the act was seen as heroic, a symbolic victory of the forces of good over evil, of law and order over the forces of chaos. Trump and his action were even compared to Moses' parting of the Red Sea.

To his detractors, it was stunt that symbolized a new low of abuse of power.

To examine this disconnect, a little deconstruction of the famous pledge may be in order:

I pledge allegiance to the flag...

Simple enough, the flag is an enduring symbol of this country, for better or worse. Armies have rallied around it and it covers the caskets of the fallen, 'nuff said. We have very elaborate (but non-binding) rules for the proper display of the flag, many of which are ignored by over-zealous flag wavers. Personally I share their respect for the flag, but don't feel the need to wrap myself up in it literally or figuratively to prove to anyone that I love my country. In that regard I feel a kinship with people in other parts of the world who love their own countries just as much as we do, yet find our obsession with our flag and flag related imagery to be rather peculiar.   

and to the republic for which it stands...

Needless to say, flags are symbols that represent movements, ideas, philosophies, organizations, religions, countries, you name it. Symbols are powerful things but they are certainly not more important than what they represent. In the case of the American flag, in one specific sense it stands for our system of government, the republic, a system whose governance is controlled by law makers and executives answering to the people, and democratically elected by the majority of them. But in order for a democratic-republic to work, the rights of the minority need to be preserved. The Constitution and its subsequent Bill of Rights, is a set of laws that in addition to setting up the framework of the government, sets boundaries to prevent the tyranny of the majority. The US Constitution, is a brilliant yet flawed document that has been the glue holding this nation together despite our differences, for well over two hundred years. It has served us well, so well in fact that we may have forgotten that a democratic-republic is only as strong as its weakest link. Sets of rules like these only work when everybody agrees to abide by them.

The current president makes no secret his disdain for the power and more specifically the lack thereof that our Constitution grants his office, especially the part about having to answer to the people. Most recently he has made it abundantly clear that he has little or no intention to assure a smooth transition of power as the Constitution demands should he lose the upcoming election, using the flimsy, thoroughly unsubstantiated excuse of "voter fraud." 

It is during times such as these when we realize just how precious and fragile our Constitution really is. 

one nation indivisible...

Here's the part where "under God" was introduced in the 1950's, between the words nation and indivisible. Many people assume that our nation's motto is "In God We Trust", but it's not. The official motto of the Unites States of America is the Latin phrase "E pluribis unum", out of many, one. One of the several clauses of the First Amendment of the US Constitution states that Congress, (the branch of government responsible for making laws) shall not make any law "respecting an establishment of religion." Anyone who claims that the edict of "separation of church and state" can't be found in anywhere in the Constitution, needn't look further than the First Amendment. 

That said, over the years, some have taken this "establishment clause" to ridiculous extremes, as is the case with virtually all of the rights afforded to us in the Constitution. Nonetheless freedom of religion, one of the bedrocks of our nation's system of values, guarantees the right of people not only to practice the religion of their choice, but to also not practice religion at all if they choose. Moreover, religious freedom does not give anyone the right to impose their own religious beliefs on others,

So in that sense, the mention of God does not belong in a pledge which all Americans are asked to take. 

Be that as it may, my main objection is that the insertion of "under God" into the Pledge breaks up what I feel to be the crux of the entire statement, the phrase, "one nation indivisible." 

Another symbol this president likes to flaunt is the image of himself standing next to the likeness of Abraham Lincoln. The words "one nation indivisible" would have rung true to Lincoln had he been around to hear them. Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery but pragmatism  prevented him from being an Abolitionist. As such he would have been content to allow the dreadful institution to die out on its own rather than risk Civil War by forcing the hand of the Southern States to all out abolish it. On the other hand, Lincoln was dead set against the expansion of slavery into western territories that would become states such as Kansas. In accepting his party's nomination for candidate for US Senator from Illinois, Lincoln responded to three troubling acts of the US government opening the door to that expansion, which he felt would jeopardize his own state's status as a free state.

Lincoln began his 1858 acceptance speech in Springfield, Illinois this way:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing, or all the other. 
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new – North as well as South.

Clearly the latter option was not acceptable for Lincoln which made him anathema to Southerners who reacted to his 1860 election to the presidency by seceding from the Union. That as well was not acceptable to President Lincoln and as a result, we were plunged into a four year Civil War. 

As the deadliest war in US history was drawing to its conclusion in the spring of 1865, Lincoln in the role of the victor was conciliatory toward the enemy who was about to reenter the Union. Summing up his Second Inaugural Address delivered one month before his assassination, Lincoln said this:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The whole point of the Civil War from the viewpoint of the Union was precisely to make this one nation indivisible. And the whole point of the Pledge of Allegiance was to bring home the point that the two bitter rivals who fought against each other in that war, would once again be united.  

Every US president since Lincoln has understood and appreciated this. Until Donald Trump that is who has every step of the way, worked tirelessly to divide this country for his own self interest. 

And now the real kicker:

...with liberty and justice for all.

These words are self-explanatory; they need no elaboration. We fought a Civil War over the ideals of those five words. Those words are what countless Americans fought and sometimes died for from the Abolitionists to those involved in the struggles that followed, promoting liberty and justice for people of color, for women, for workers, for the poor and the oppressed, and for other disenfranchised fellow countrymen and women. In the 1940's we joined a global effort to eradicate the menace of totalitarian Fascism and Nazism to promote liberty and justice around the world. Nearly 700,000 Americans gave their lives in World War II. Hardly a soul in this country did not contribute in one way or other to that effort.

In our day, countless individuals and groups continue the work of making those last five words of the Pledge a reality, rather than an abstract collection of  empty words memorized by rote. One might disagree with some of the methods of groups like Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA, but opposing what they stand for is tantamount to opposing all those mentioned above who came before them. 

The fight to end this current administration is not a struggle between Democrat and Republican, Right and Left, Liberal and Conservative, or Socialism and Capitalism. It is nothing less than a fight to preserve the values enumerated in our Pledge of Allegiance, ALL of them. That's why people from so many divergent ideologies and points of view have come together in this election in support of Joe Biden.

Because without our democratically elected republic, without our Constitution, without one nation indivisible,  without a truly United States and the aspirations of E pluribus unum, and especially without liberty and justice for all, that is to say the concrete things our servicemen and women fought and died for, the flag by itself stands for nothing.

* In the first line, the words "of the United States of America" were added to the pledge in 1924.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Nature in the City, Part II: Chicagohenge, 2020


After visiting my mother one day last week after work, I hopped aboard a bus which turned west on Randolph Street and this is what I saw. 

I'm not sure when the term "Chicagohenge" was coined, but it describes the phenomenon of the sun rising and setting close to the horizon at the vanishing point of the city's east-west streets during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. It's not unique to, but is particularly spectacular in Chicago because of the canyon effect created by the skyscrapers in Chicago's Loop and the fact that the direction of our streets correspond almost directly to the cardinal points of a compass, unlike say the streets of Manhattan. 

The "henge" part as you can probably guess, is after Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone circle in Great Britain whose arrangement was very likely designed to line up with another significant astronomical moment of the year, Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year and the first day of summer. On this day in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky before it begins its gradual descent which culminates with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year roughly on the 21st of December, when the cycle begins anew. To the ancients, the reversal of the sun's downward slide became noticeable around December 25th, which became a day of great rejoicing to people who had no practical explanation for the motions of celestial objects, other than the will of the Gods. This day conveniently morphed into the day when much of Christendom celebrates the birth of Jesus. Credit for that goes to the Roman Emperor Constantine who in the process of converting his empire from paganism to Christianity, he likewise converted the day of celebration devoted to the figurative re-birth of the Sun into the day celebrating the literal birth of the Son. 

Smack-dab between the two solstices, the equinoxes are the two moments of the year marking respectively the beginning of spring and autumn, when the sun appears directly above the earth's equator. Because of the tilt of the earth's axis combined with the planet's continuous revolution about the sun, the solstices and equinoxes are moments which can be measured  to the second. This year, autumnal equinox occurred at 8:31 AM CDT on September 22, about 10 hours after this photograph was made. Had the setting of the sun in Chicago occurred precisely at the moment of the equinox, the sun would have appeared right on the horizon. Well not exactly because of the effect of refraction (bending) of light which makes the rising and setting sun and other celestial objects appear to be not where they actually are, but for the sake of argument, let's just assume that statement is true. 

The change of seasons is important to us modern day city slickers primarily because it marks the time when we change our wardrobe. Obviously the seasons are far more important to people who make their living off the land such as farmers. In this part of the world, it's harvest time and another astronomical event has for millennia, serendipitously aided farmers during this busy time for them. That event is Harvest Moon, which is the first full moon after the autumnal equinox. During Harvest Moon which will take place tomorrow, Thursday, October 1st, the particular relationship between the relative angles of the sun and the moon means that the lag time between moonrise from day to day is less than usual, resulting in the moon rising for several days, very close to the time of sunset. This provides extra illumination and is a boon to framers, giving them extra light to reap their harvest after the sun goes down. 

As an architectural photographer for many years, the significance of the equinoxes for me is that between them, the sun spends some of its time in the northern hemisphere, meaning that if I want to photograph a north facing facade of a building illuminated by the sun,  I can only do it in the time after sunrise or before sunset between roughly March 22 and September 20. The picture above marks the last day until next March when the sun will be visible between the tall buildings in the east-west streets of Chicago's Loop.

It was dumb luck, literally being at the right place at the right time, that allowed me to witness Chicagohenge first hand. I noticed dozens of photographers with serious gear snapping away as the sun made its last appearance above Randolph Street for six months.  

Strangely enough, my being aboard the bus gave me a slightly better vantage than the more prepared photographers as I was in the middle of the street and several feet higher than they were.

Life isn't always fair as they say and sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. At least it made up for missing that damn tornado lat month. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Nature in the City, Part I: Tornado!

Living in the city, one can easily forget that no matter how much we think we are in control of our destinies, we all live under the forces of nature. Here are two posts about recent close encounters with Mother Nature, one terrifying, the other exhilarating. 

Chicago is one of those places that usually stays clear of nature's wrath. We're not near the ocean so we're spared the threat of hurricanes. Even though we are in the vicinity of a major fault line, The New Madrid Fault, the few earthquakes we get are generally too weak to notice. I slept through a recent quake and probably the most severe one in my life took place while I was riding the subway so while many friends felt the tremor, all I could feel was the normal vibrations of the train. 

Poor California not only has earthquakes to deal with but extreme draught conditions make much of that state vulnerable to wild fires such as those which are ravaging the Golden State as we speak. And the Gulf Coast constantly has to be on notice this time of year, hurricane season.

One thing we do get in this part of the country are tornadoes. I spent much of my childhood in fear of them, often being awoken in the middle of the night by air raid sirens which doubled as tornado warnings whenever a twister was spotted nearby, Fortunately we were always spared their wrath because those terrifying and unpredictable storms hardly ever make their way into the city and when they do their path of destruction is narrow. I have no idea why tornadoes typically avoid cities. My guess is that it's simply a matter of the luck of the draw, cities take up only a small part of the entire land mass of the country so the chances of a city being hit by a tornado is far less than everywhere else that is not a city. But that doesn't explain why some places seem to get more than their share of them, Plainfield, Illinois, a distant suburb of Chicago being an example.  

Anyway, our luck ran out last month when a tornado ripped through our neighborhood. Not only that, the storm's path ran directly along Jarvis, the street that dead ends into our building, then continues east to the lake. 

That morning I was a little excited because they predicted severe storms were heading our way. I guess I was just looking forward to a little something to break the monotony of quarantine. Besides I like storms, that is to say the ones we usually get in this area which involve thunder and lightning, a lot of rain, and this being Chicago, some wind. The storms we usually get are seldom accompanied by any destruction worth noting. 

I had to do some grocery shopping so I headed to the store earlier than I normally would have in hopes of beating the storm. As I headed back to my car with the groceries the sky looked ominous. The phone rang and I could see it was my daughter calling. As soon as I answered, a downpour started. Then came a sudden gust of wind. I couldn't hear her and as I was getting drenched and the wind was blowing everything all over the place,  I told her I'd call her back. At that point I was a little annoyed as I assumed she was calling to ask me to get her something from the store which I had just left. 

What I was experiencing, unpleasant as it was, didn't seem to me at all unusual. After I got in the car, I called my daughter back. She was frantic. "Get inside immediately" she told me. Foolishly I asked her why. It took several interrupted telephone conversations to put the pieces together, 

It turned out that she, my wife and my son, along with our cat, had left the apartment and were in the lobby of our building with several of our neighbors. Before departing, they saw trees bending in ways they shouldn't, small objects swirling about in a large circle, and a sickly green color in the sky. The whole nine yards.

"Holy shit..." I thought to myself, "...a tornado". By the time my daughter got a hold of me, the worst of it was over for them, they were just worried about me. They didn't need to because even though I was only a half mile away to the west, the twister was headed east toward the lake.  

Our building, a massive late 1920's luxury apartment building was unscathed by the storm, as were most of the buildings in our neighborhood. As you can see by the photograph, most of the damage was suffered to cars parked underneath trees that were uprooted by the storm. 

My first struggle was trying to get home as several streets were completely blocked by the fallen trees. But as I said, the path of destruction with these beasts is usually pretty narrow, and once I got back on the major through street, I was able to find alternate streets that were untouched. 

The other struggle not too surprisingly is that our electricity went out. The electric company told us we could expect to be without power for about five days. So much for most of the food I had just bought. 

Fortunately it didn't come to that and in the middle of our second dark night while we were all fast asleep, all the lights came on. 

Surveying the damage in the subsequent days, sure enough, street after street all the uprooted trees and squashed cars were within a swath probably no wider than the length of a football field. 

Given all the damage, it's a blessing that there were no serious injuries. Just lots of of survival stories which no doubt will get more and more harrowing as time goes on. 

Except for me that is as once again, I completely missed it.