Sunday, February 26, 2023

Where Are You From?

The name of a mutual friend came up the other day during a conversation with a colleague on the morning ride to work. On an Instagram post, our friend wrote about her new job and added how happy she was to be "back home in Ohio." 

This got me wondering about the places where we come from, the place we identify as our home.

Our friend originates from a fairly small town, so it probably shouldn't be surprising that growing up, her day-to-day world existed beyond her own hamlet. That might be why people from small towns tend to identify at least as much with their home state as their hometown.

But I've noticed that particularly in Ohio, state identity extends beyond small towns and into decent sized cities like Toledo, Akron and Dayton, and even into the three major metropolises, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus.

Consider this post coming from a Cleveland website celebrating the "20 best things about living in Ohio." The same site also published a piece listing the 12 things to hate about living in Ohio.  Interestingly, some of the same things appear on both lists!

It's not as if you wouldn't find a Chicago publication describing the state this city happens to be in. But it would be written in much the same way as if it had it been about Wisconsin, Indiana or Michigan, in other words, close-by places to spend your free time when you want to get out of the big city. In fact, I would venture to guess that Chicagoans spend far more of their free time visiting places in those three states than destinations in their own state.

My family certainly does.

The thing is this, with the exception of writing it on our return address or during tax time, most Chicagoans hardly ever think about Illinois, let alone identify with it.

It turns out, outsiders don't always identify Chicago with Illinois either. In what has become for better or worse, the unofficial anthem of this city, here is where the song's author, the great bluesman Robert Johnson places our fair city:
Oh, Baby don't you want to go...

Oh, Baby don't you want to go...

Back to the land of California

to my sweet home, Chicago.

Don't we wish?  

Contemporary performers change the lyrics to be more geographically correct. Eric Clapton simply changed one word making the line read: "Back from the land of California." 

But the more common contemporary line is this: "back to the same ol' place.." 

How lame is that?


While we here in the Windy City identify more with our city than our state, our provincialism goes beyond that. Chicago is known as a city of neighborhoods and rightfully so. It is not uncommon, although much less so today than it used to be, for people to live in one neighborhood their entire life. And it goes still deeper than that. A great number of people who grew up in this city identify themselves not with the neighborhood in which they grew up, but with the Roman Catholic parish in which they lived, even if they weren't Catholic and never set foot in the parish church. 

So if you grew up on the South Side, you might say you were from St. Sabina's, Little Flower or Christ the King Parish, and folks, (South Siders that is), would immediately know where you were from. On the North Side you might say you were from Queen of Angels or St. Margaret Mary. Or on the West Side, from Our Lady of Sorrows, or Resurrection Parish which no longer exists today except in the hearts and minds of people who grew up there and still call it their place of origin. 

There is no East Side of Chicago, (that would be the lake), although there is a neighborhood called Eastside which happens to be just south of the neighborhood called South Chicago. And if you happen to be from there, you might say you were from St. Michael the Archangel Parish. Just don't confuse that with St. Michael's in Old Town, on the North Side.

That might raise a few eyebrows because Chicagoans if they identify with a parish or not, definitely identify with which side of town they're from, North Side or South Side. Then there's the West Side, a little harder to define, technically the part of the city west of the Chicago River, but in reality, it's the area west of the river that straddles the north/south border of the city, Madison Street by a few miles or so in either direction. West Siders sometimes identify themselves as either North or South Siders, unless of course like me, they don't. 

Perhaps the most tangible symbol of the two sides of Chicago are our two Major League baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox. Their ballparks are virtually equidistant from Madison Street. Home plate of Wrigley Field where the Cubs play, sits 36 blocks north of Madison and its counterpart at "new" Comiskey Park, (I refuse to call it by its corporate sponsor name), home of the White Sox, is 35 blocks south.

One of the first things you learn when you move to Chicago is that you can root for one team or the other, but not for both. I'd have to say White Sox fans hold more of a grudge, which is common for South Siders who often live with a chip on their shoulder. A White Sox fan will proudly tell you that his or her two favorite baseball teams are the Sox, and any team playing the Cubs. 

As I've said before in this space, it's kind of an unrequited hate. There are Cub fans who claim to feel the same about the Sox, but they really don't.

This is something people outside of Chicago just can't comprehend. I remember being in a bar in Savannah, Georgia during the baseball playoffs and quite surprisingly the Cubs were still playing ball. I struck up a conversation with a local at the joint who, knowing I was from Chicago, said I must be excited that the Cubs were in the playoffs. I told him no, not really because I'm a White Sox fan. 

The guy looked at me like I was from Mars. 

On that train ride mentioned above, my colleague theorized that states for which people have a strong affinity, are perhaps the ones with huge state universities with strong athletic programs, usually football. Ohio certainly is such as state, as is Georgia.

I had never thought of that.

Basketball is the sport Indiana University is most famous for, and in that most state-conscious of states, the nickname of their team is also the nickname of the state, and also how its people proudly refer to themselves, Hoosiers. I can't think of any other state that has adopted an official nickname as enduring or widely accepted. Theories abound but like the term Yankee, no one really has a clue exactly what a Hoosier is or where the name came from, but it's been around since the early 19th century.

A group of Hoosier fans exhibiting their state/school pride on the Chicago L.

The most famous sporting event in the state of Indiana takes place in its capital and largest city, Indianapolis. In case you were wondering how much folks in that city relate to their state, the most poignant moment during the annual Indianapolis 500 motor race is the traditional rendition of the song: Back Home Again in Indiana.

Michigan has two major state universities with sports programs to match. While in Detroit several years ago, I was listening to local sports radio and the topic of conversation was "who do you hate more, Ohio State or Michigan State?" Judging by the response, obviously Detroiters, who have teams represented in all the major professional sports leagues, also love their collegiate Wolverines who play an hour down the road in Ann Arbor, but not Michigan teams in general.

Outside of the Motor City though, I've found that Michiganders, yes that's what they're called, are also very attached to their state, even to the big city. The words, "the corner of Trumbull and Michigan in Corktown" or shortened to just "The Corner", have a magic ring to any person from Michigan above a certain age as they evoke memories of the late, great Tiger Stadium which stood at that intersection in that neighborhood of Detroit. 

Ask someone from Michigan where he or she is from in the state, and I'll bet my first born they'll hold out their right palm, fingers closed together, which is roughly the same shape as the state of Michigan, (excluding the Upper Peninsula), and point on their hand where their town is located. 

Where's Kalamazoo you ask? Why it's right on the lifeline, toward the bottom of the hand. 

How about Traverse City? Around the point where the tip of the pinky meets the ring finger. 

Saginaw? Just below the base of the thumb.

And so on. 

Unlike Michiganders, Illinoisans outside of Chicago (known by us as "downstaters"), don't show much interest in their state's only metropolis but rather, return Chicago's indifference to them in spades. You're just as if not more likely to find St. Louis Cardinal fans in places like Springfield and Carbondale, than Cubs fans. Unfortunately, the territory of White Sox fandom doesn't extend far beyond the southern fringes of the Chicago metropolitan area, which could be one of the reasons Sox fans are perpetually crabby. By contrast, rooting for an out-of-state team in Ohio would practically be grounds for excommunication from membership in the state. 

Illinois is a reliably blue state, ONLY because of Chicago and its dominance over the state's population. Divorce the city from the state and a Democrat wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell to get elected to a statewide office in a Chicago-less Illinois. Obviously, the exact opposite is true up here where Republicans don't even bother to run for local offices. 

Sadly, in these days of extreme polarization in the realm of American politics, the rift between Chicago and Downstate Illinois grows by the minute.

Then there are the states that if independent from the U.S., would rate by themselves as sizable countries. I'm talking of course about Texas and California, places that have such a strong identity of their own that you couldn't help identifying with them, even if you're from a megalopolis like LA or Houston.

I won't even attempt to crack that egg.

Perhaps the most familiar image of state identification in popular culture is when Dorothy and her dog Toto travel from their completely black and white world and arrive in the magical Technicolor Land of Oz. As they step out of their time and space travel machine, otherwise known as their house, Dorothy famously says: "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." 

It's a great line, one I use all the time to describe any out-of-the ordinary situation.

Frank Baum, the author of the novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which inspired the movie, paints a much bleaker image of Kansas and especially of Dorothy's caretaker aunt and uncle than the movie does, so much so, you wonder why on earth the girl is so anxious to get back home. 

Incidentally at the time he wrote the book, Baum called the neighborhood of Logan Square on the West Side of Chicago, just a stone's throw from Humboldt Park and in the parish of St. Sylvester, home.

Just as I did, sixty years later. 

My original home is where I'll wrap this thing up. The truth is, I identify with all those places just mentioned.

Whether you come from a small town, a big city neighborhood or an entire state, whether it's the local parish or a point on the palm of your hand you most identify with, there's still no place like home, even if you can't go there again.

So, where are you from?

Friday, February 24, 2023

Putin's War

We are talking about a radical, complete transformation of education to mobilize Russian youth for war, Right now education has two functions—propaganda and basic military training.
This is the ominous warning of Russian sociologist, political scientist and newly minted dissident, Grigory Yudin. One year ago, Yudin predicted that Russia, specifically its dictator Vladimir Putin was "about to start the most senseless war in history."

Indeed he did.

I distinctly remember the discussion last February during the massive buildup of Russian forces along its border with Ukraine, that there was no way Putin would be foolish enough to invade a sovereign nation. I agreed. True, with the "mighty" Russian military behind him I thought, he might be able to overtake Ukraine fairly quickly with a minimum of bloodshed, but winning the peace would be infinitely more difficult.

Boy were we wrong, we in the West that is, at least with the first two points. The people in the East, closer to the action, namely in the countries formerly under the iron fist of the USSR, knew better.

Today, February 24, 2023, marks the first anniversary of yet another day of infamy, the day Russia invaded Ukraine marking the beginning of the most senseless war in history.

It's hard to get into the head of a sociopathic dictator but I think it is safe to assume that Putin could not have imagined last February that one year later he would still be fighting his war, continuing to send tens of thousands of his nation's young people to their deaths in his futile (at least up until now) attempt to occupy Ukraine. That doesn't even mention the murder, rape and plunder that his military is inflicting upon the innocent people of that sovereign nation.  It's certainly not what he was telling his subjects a year ago, back when you could get thrown in jail for calling Putin's incursion a war rather than simply a "military operation". I'm guessing that still is true. 

There seems to be a majority of Russians who continue to support Putin's war but of course, conducting an accurate poll in Russia is about as unlikely as the proverbial herding of cats. Despite Grigory Yudin's words at the top of this post, it's a little hard for me, to imagine the Russian people, at least intelligent Russians with any sense of history, being swayed by attempts to indoctrinate them into going along with Putin's nonsense about the "de-nazification of a region that is and has always been in every way, an integral part of Russia."

On the other hand as we've been seeing in our own country over the last several years, there is no shortage of people who have no problem going along with anyone who tells them what they want to hear, facts be damned. 

Vladimir Putin, as has been laid bare for the world to see, leads a paper tiger of a military, fraught with massive corruption that goes all the way to the top. Its soldiers are mal-treated, ill-prepared, and above all at least in this case, have been lied to about the purpose of their mission. They are fighting against people many of whom share a similar language, culture, faith, and even ancestry. In short, there is little incentive for Russian soldiers to fight this war, other than the fear of punishment from their superiors. This is what necessitates all the nonsense propaganda about fighting Nazis. 

Consequently, up until now, the Russian military has been no match for the Ukrainians who have the support of the wealth and weaponry if not soldiers, from NATO members and other countries. What's more, they are hands down winning the battle in the court of public opinion all over the world. Far greater powers than Russia have learned from time immemorial that fighting against a well-funded, highly motivated army with international support, defending their home, in their home, is a very tall order at best, and more often than not, doomed to failure. 

But Putin has two things on his side right now, numbers, and his own depravity. As someone who has proven time and again that he believes the only life in Russia worth protecting is his own, Putin has no qualms about sending his country's children to their slaughter in order to fight his war.  Russia has a lot of children of fighting age. If this war drags on for years as many in Russia's military brass predict, every year will see more children become fighting age, able to go to Ukraine and die for Putin as well. 

Which is fine with him. 

His latest exercise in sociopathic behavior is conscripting prisoners, offering them deals of a get-out-of-jail-free card in exchange for serving in his war. As people in jail are of even less value to Putin than ordinary soldiers, with a minimum of training, ex-cons have been put on the front lines to serve as cannon fodder, while more experienced professional solders behind them, wait for the enemy to exhaust their ammunition as they slaughter the first waves of troops. 

With the vast number of "expendable" young Russians available to Putin, and many more to come, this senseless war could drag on for years. 

So what could put an end to it?

Total victory for one side or the other:

For Russia that would mean completely occupying Ukraine, even if it means doing what they did in Chechnya, nearly annihilate the country. That is probably what it would take for the Ukrainians to surrender as there would be nothing left to defend. 

Total victory for Ukraine would mean a complete withdrawal of Russia from their country, preferably followed by stiff reparations and Nuremburg style war crime tribunals leading all the way up to Putin. In order for that to happen, in the words of one military analyst I heard over the weekend: "Ukraine would have to take Moscow." Not a likely scenario. 

A negotiated peace:

Russia coming to the table would mean concessions from the Ukrainians who would almost certainly be forced to give up territory in the east such as the Donbass, in exchange for peace. The Ukrainians are unlikely to go for that as they have no interest in seeing their country torn apart but mostly because there would no guarantee there would be no more invasions in the future. 

Putin drops dead.

That would certainly be the most appealing scenario, although as an old Russian friend who lived there during the time of the Soviet Union always told me, "There will always be someone waiting to replace him..." Then in classic Russian fatalism he would add, "...probably someone worse."

In other words, be careful what you wish for.

For Putin's part, this past Tuesday he delivered a rambling speech to his country, the Russian version of the State of the Union Address. He brought up the usual same ol' same ol', about how the West is the real aggressor in this conflict, how we started the war, how our "liberal totalitarianism" is really the culprit, yadda yadda yadda. Then he brought up another evil that I wasn't aware of: how the Church of England is now advocating for... are you ready for this?... a gender-neutral God.
More importantly, Putin made it abundantly clear that all these things are worth fighting against and being the valiant culture warrior he is, he has no intention of giving up before he is finished ridding his nation of all those nasty threats and influences. 

Now I don't know much about the gender of gods but apparently Putin's god has a penis.

I would beg to differ about the other stuff however. As Joe Biden correctly said in a speech from Poland, just hours after Putin delivered his speech, the West has no intention, nor did it ever, of invading Russia. That would certainly be foolhardy. 

Perhaps the best summation of Putin's war is the following, found on a poster in Ukraine and recently repeated by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at a meeting of the UN Security Council last September:
If Russia stops fighting, there will be no war.
If Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no Ukraine. 
There you have it; that's why the Ukrainians fight, and that's why we support them.
It doesn't get much simpler than that.