Friday, December 30, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Old Year

I'm back home in Chicago after a week up in Vermont visiting my parents.  Once again I was reminded during my trip of how important the little things are--simple kindnesses like washing the dishes for someone or offering to take out the trash.  In a troubled world that seems like it's on the garbage shoot to hell, these are the oases that keep people going. 

One reason these kindnesses are so important is that they force us off the grid of anonymity that defines much of 21st century life and bring us face to face with another person. 

So many of the horrific stories that filled the news in 2011 were the result of people who lived life as a series of parallel abstractions rather than a number of situations that allowed them to interact as fellow human beings with similar hopes and dreams.  This tragedy is on my mind as I look towards 2012. 

Generally speaking I don't like New Year's resolutions, but I have one for myself this year.  I want to get out of the habit of categorizing people and view each person I meet with a fresh pair of eyes. 

This vulnerability is scary on a number of levels.  It opens up the possibility of being rejected or taken advantage of and also means investing energy in staying in the moment.  However, it feels worth the effort.  I'm tired of the self-righteous self-absorption that surrounds me and this is my humble effort to cut through the fog. 

We'll see how I do.  Like anything worthwhile, this change in behavior will assuredly take some time to gain a firm foundation in my life.  I'll just take it one day at time.

Happy New Years to all my readers and I look forward to sharing more of my rambles through the news with you in 2012.  Remember, if you drink, don't drive.  And try to wake up next to a woman and/or man whose name you can remember.  ; )

Friday, December 23, 2011

We Were Not Aware.....

Up in Vermont with my parents this week and one of the major stories in the Burlington area is the death of a homeless man near the Church Street Marketplace.  Paul O'Toole's death from exposure, he froze to death on a heating grate, would not ordinarily draw much attention.  But the approach of the Holidays combined with the proximity of where he died to a major tourist shopping area has prompted some soul-searching in the Queen City. 

A conference was held at City Hall last week to determine what might have been done to prevent the death of Mr. O'Toole and what changes (if any) were needed in the city's response to its homeless population. 

What spoke to me about this otherwise back page story was how it typified the way we as a society tend to deal with major issues.  Either someone has to die or a catastrophic breakdown needs to occur before people come together in search of solutions.  This reactionary stance hasn't helped us much over time.  It will certainly not help solve the "problem" of homelessness in the Burlington area. 

My wish for all my readers during the Holiday Season is that they will stop looking at those around them as part of groups and instead view them as individuals with life stories similar to our own.  Mr. O'Toole might have lived if he had been viewed as Paul rather than "a homeless man."  His life is not a problem to be solved but a reminder that community as a concept has fallen out of favor. We all live too much within ourselves.  People die on the periphery all the time and are quickly forgotten. 

Look outside of yourselves not just today but in the weeks and months to come.  Reclaim your humanity in the new year and share it with others. Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

We Have Met the Enemy

On Wednesday the last hope of blocking the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was shattered when President Barack Obama not only declined to veto the bill but said he would willingly sign it into law. 

Typically this annual appropriations bill for the Department of Defense is passed by the House and Senate without controversy.  This year, however, a new clause added that would redefine the United States as a theater of operations in the War on Terror led such disparate figures as Occupy Wall Street, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even Ron Paul to decry its passage. 

They argued that the bill would gut the right of Habeas Corpus without officially suspending it and would also come dangerously close to overturning the Posse Commitatus Act of 1877, which prohibits the armed forces from serving as a police force on United States soil except in cases of National Emergency. 

NDAA 2012 essentially creates a permanent state of emergency in the United States in which the Department of Defense may now join the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in arresting and detaining U.S. citizens on our home turf. 

Defenders of the bill argue that only those associated with terrorist organizations need be concerned.  They also claim that revisions to the language of sections 1031 and 1032 of the bill offer sufficient protections to U.S. citizens to prevent them from being arrested, imprisoned and tried by military authorities.  This, however, is cold comfort. 

Under the expanded powers afforded to the Justice Department since 9/11, it is now possible to be suspected as a terrorist for giving money, donating time, or otherwise offering services to charitable groups that are on a mysterious "watch list" that only those in the upper echelons of power have access to.  This tragically ridiculous state of affairs has led former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter to fall under Justice Department suspicion for his work on behalf of the Palestinians.

How did we arrive at this sorry state of affairs where the Bill of Rights can be waived by simply calling someone a "terrorist?"  It was a slow creep that began after 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act and, as Obama's recent actions show, it cannot be blamed solely on George W. Bush and his associates. 

We all carry a share of the blame for indulging in an unhealthy fear that led us to fight a Quixotic War on Terror.  The world is inherently a dangerous place and no amount of military hardware will ever change that.  In fact, the existence of this military hardware probably makes the world less safe. 

With the war in Iraq coming to an end and an exit from Afghanistan on the horizon, it is time to retire the War on Terror as well.  Police and judicial processes are needed to find, arrest, and prosecute the criminals who kill innocent people in the United States.  This is not the duty of the army, an institution designed to protect the nation from attacks by other nations or from internal insurrection. 

In this instance we have met the enemy and it is not Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group.  The enemy is us and our own irrational fears.  Somewhere in hell Osama Bin Laden is laughing at us as we throw away our civil liberties one by one to get even with him for getting lucky.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Good Time Blago's Got the Blues

Just in time for the Holidaze, another Illinois governor is soon going off to the federal pen. On Wednesday, U.S. District judge James Zagel sentenced former governor Rod Blagojevich to 14 years in prison for attempting to sell the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. 

Blagojevich doesn't have to turn himself in to federal authorities until February 16 and it is not yet clear where he will serve his lengthy sentence.  Perhaps he'll get to be bunk mates with his predecessor, former Illinois Governor George Ryan. 

Blagojevich is now the 4th Illinois governor to be convicted of corruption.  This prompted Judge Zagel to give a lecture to the courtroom along with his delivery of the ex-governor's sentence.  Declaring that "the fabric of Illinois is torn," Zagel made it clear that his harsh sentence was meant to send a message to other state politicians.  Corruption in any way, shape, or form will no longer be tolerated. 

Zagel then went on to criticize Illinois voters, saying, "the American people usually get the government they deserve."  Without voter support, he suggested, corruption like that engaged in by Blagojevich would not have been possible.  Our acceptance, he implied, fueled the man's audacity.

Whether Zagel's lecture to the courtroom will be heeded by Illinois voters remains to be seen.  Nearly every generation has lamented the corruption in this state and particularly in Chicago from which most of it seems to emerge.  Yet despite these laments little seems to change.  Different faces.  Same old story.  So it goes. 

But before we throw up our hands in despair, it's worth noting one of the ways that politicians like Blagojevich come into power and stay there:  Voting the party line.

Most voters in the United States are (to be polite) quite uninformed about who and what they are voting for.  In Chicago, Ward Bosses long took advantage of this ignorance to mobilize armies of voters for "their guy."  Typically that guy was a Democrat.

Even though the Ward Bosses are mostly gone, replaced by white collar boardroom movers and shakers in the Loop, voters still tend to vote party rather than person or platform.  Case in point, Jose Berrios.  The man openly admitted during the campaign for Cook County Assessor that he was corrupt.  Did this prevent him from being elected?  No.  Why?  Because he's a Democrat.

What happened next makes me want to laugh and then cry.  Voters complained not long after he took office that (wait for it) Berrios was corrupt.  Holy Christmas Batman!!!  What a surprise.

If you don't want a repeat of Blagojevich in the near future, it would pay to vote with the same degree of care that you would take shopping for a new electronic gadget or gizmo.  Those who run your local, state, and federal government are at least as important as the Apps on your phone. 

Would you play Angry Birds if it cost you $500 to download?  I think not.  Yet this is the same thing voters do every year when an election comes around.  Keep this in mind next time you stand in line to vote.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Fine Art of Making Due

In the Age of Austerity, many of us are being forced to contemplate some hard decisions.  These include whether to pay for food or medicine, the rent or utility bills.  They also include accepting second best career paths and putting off plans to buy a home or start a family.  American Dreams are being downsized almost as fast as our wallets these days and there is no apparent end in sight.  But "making do" is not simply about survival.  About the hard choices of day to day living in a bad economy.  It is also a symbol of how ordinary people can take back their authority over themselves and their environment. 

This was one of the subjects addressed in a teach-in that I facilitated for Occupy Chicago on reclaiming public space.  Examining four well-known public spaces in Chicago (Grant Park, Federal Plaza, Daley Plaza, and the sidewalks near LaSalle and Jackson street), I argued to the audience that there are no truly public spaces in the city of Chicago.  Under Mayor Daley, most of these spaces were turned into tourist attractions or otherwise shaped to allow for the easy flow of commerce.  Ordinary people are treated like cargo in the city's scheme of design and it is only when they "misuse" a space that they can liberate themselves from the tyranny of the grid. 

That misuse can take any number of forms.  Simply stopping on a busy sidewalk to take a photograph and enjoy the view could easily be viewed as a misuse of space.  So could ballroom dancing in the Daley Plaza or singning showtoons off key.  As trivial as these acts of disobedience may seem, they add up over time.  Not only do they encourage an overall change in attitude among those around you but they also (sometimes) pressure those in power to change certain aspects of our city's design. 

A good case in point is the crosswalk from Buckingham Fountain to Queen's Landing.  When I first moved to Chicago in 2000, a pedestrian could walk down the stairs on the Lake Michigan side of the Buckingham Fountain and cross Lakeshore Drive to the the waterfront using a crosswalk.  In 2005, that crosswalk and the red lights associated with it were removed to supposedly improve the flow of traffic.  Cement bollards and metal chains were used to keep pedestrians from jaywalking but it was not uncommon to see people running across this busy highway (crosswalk or not) to reach the lake.  Two young men were seriously injured just this summer while running across Lakeshore Drive at this location with a dozen other fans from Lollapalooza, which has been located in Grant Park for seven years.  Just a few days ago, thanks in large measure to these jaywalkers, the crosswalk was restored. 

Not all examples of making do are as dangerous as those listed above.  Another short cut that led to change occurred on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.  When new walkways were created on campus, no path was created between the main campus offices in University Hall and the Daley Library.  Instead of taking a roundabout path to the library, pedestrians frequently cut across the grass.  Eventually this led to a permanent bare spot and later on a deep mud rut that led in a straight line from University Hall to the library.  Soon after this rut developed, a sidewalk was laid. 

These small design changes matter as space shapes us by influencing our attitudes towards ourselves and also towards each other.  When we misuse space, we change our attitude and we create a potential for change.  It is the small opening needed for larger changes to occur in our society.  Bearing this in mind, I have a suggestion for my readers.  Go down to the Christmas Market in Daley Plaza and play nerf football with some friends while singing "Don't Eat the Daisies."  If nothing else, tourists will snap a photo of you.  You'll become an urban legend. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

For This I am Truly Grateful

It's a venerable tradition amongst writers to write on Thanksgiving about what it means to be thankful or the things we often overlook but should cherish.  Usually this takes the form of a lengthy story about someone less fortunate than us or a family member that we have lost.  Not having the energy to write such a narrative today, I've decided to offer my readers a series of loosely connected verbal images that illustrate the many ways that I feel grateful today.

As a Professor, my chief source of gratitude lies in my students.  Yes, they can be a chore some days but at times they blow me away with their passion and creativity.  This week was one of those times where I could barely hold back tears of joy. 

In one writing class my students presented their memorial design proposals.  I asked them to design and propose for construction a memorial to veterans that would be placed somewhere on the UIC campus.  Not only was this an excellent opportunity for them to practice their argumentative skills, the intended audience was the University Chancellor, but also an opportunity to unleash their creative potential.  One design had a six-sided base that was hollow in the middle.  On the outside of this hexagon were carved the names of UIC students who had served in the armed forces since the schools founding.  There were two doors that allowed entry into the base.  Once inside you could either go to an auditorium on the left or a bookstore to the right.  You could also walk straight ahead to the open center of the base which was circular in design.  From that open center emerged several pairs of hands holding up an American flag.  These rose up out of the base of the hexagon into the sky.  The other design that really caught my eye used two statues.  One was a soldier in uniform saluting an unseen officer.  The other was that same figure wearing a cap and gown.  In the middle was a flat plaque with the names of the first graduating class of veterans from what was then the Navy Pier campus of UIC. 

My other writing class is focusing on issues of space and how environment shapes our sense of who and what we are.  Their research proposals and updates also blew me away.  They were so insightful ranging from how public transit reflects the design of a city and its attitudes towards people to the ways in which a store influences how we feel about ourselves.  One student even looked at the psychological connection between humans and machines, in this case slot machines at a casino.  I hope at least one of them chooses to publish their work. 

Another source of gratitude for me today are the wonderfully supportive and creative friends and colleagues who surround me.  Chicago is a city (believe it or not) of budding philosophers.  Walking through the loop last evening, I met a woman who attended a lecture I gave on public space.  We stood talking for over an hour about how our environment shapes us and what we can do to reclaim our humanness in a dehumanizing environment.  Heady stuff for a cold walk to the train station and long ride home but life sustaining to me.  It is happiness to be recognized in the street for the right reason and to engage even for a moment in a meaningful human connection on a busy city street. 

So there you have it.  A few reasons for why I am grateful today.  If you'd like to share, post a comment.  Let me and my readers know who/what you are grateful for today.  Then think about how you might keep that feeling alive 365 days a year.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

We Apologize for the Inconvenience

You knew it was bound to happen.  What self-respecting English Prof. could resist a bitchy blog post on lapses in language.  Here are three (in no particular order) that particularly annoy me: 

1. The False Apology: 

I'm a regular rider of mass transit here in Chicago.  With it's crumbling infrastructure and aging equipment, this is an announcement I hear on an almost daily basis--"We apologize for the inconvience and thank you for your patience."  Two things bother about this statement.  First, you're assuming that I am patient and forgiving, which I'm sorry CTA but after all your BS I most certainly am not.  Second, your apology is delivered through a tinny sound system in the flattest most monotone voice available.  So much for sincereity.  A canned apology straight out of the tin. 

2. The Misapplied Science Metaphor:

This one has really been pissing me off lately as I read the technology news in the newspapers and online.  When Steve Jobs died, numerous commentators on the future of Apple argued for the need to "inject Job's DNA into the company" or claimed that he had already done so and thus had assured its survival.  Never mind that it is impossible to inject anything into a concept but doesn't anybody else find that image creepy? 

Another area where the missapplied science metaphor has reigned supreme is in the field of online education and curriculum reform movements that call for a "new ecology of learning."  Since when did a classroom become a wetland?  I don't see any frogs or lilly pads here.  It's a group of human beings trying to learn and not a pack of wolves looking for a new habitat. 

3.  The Inflation of Language

This one is a low level annoyance but still worthy of note and that is the tendency to make things sound better than they are through careful wording.  One example is Dominos Pizza's attempt to market its new "artisanal pizza" and Kraft's campaign to promote its new "organic" macaroni and cheese.  I'm sorry but if it will arrive at my door in 30 minutes or less, it's not artisanal.  The same applies if I'm pouring stuff out of a bright blue box into a boiling pot of water.  It seems that both of these mega-corporations have learned from the clothing world where you can make a fortune off of old clothes by simply calling them "vintage."

If you care about this abuse of language as much as I do, you can start by avoiding these words and phrases.  Think of it as a boycott.  You can also create dumb phrases of your own to show people how badly they are mauling their mother tongue.  Here's one that I just thought up today:  "Jimmy I'm upset by the metric of your sharing in this class.  We need to meet after class to discuss a new algorithm for productivity in your data port."  Figure that one out and you win a prize.  More than likely whatever change I have left in my pants. 

Seniors Cause a Stir at Federal Plaza

This Monday more than 1,000 seniors rallied at Chicago's Federal Plaza to protest threatened cuts to government aid in Medicare, Medicaid, HUD subsidies, and Social Security.  43 were arrested after a group sat down in a circle at the intersection of Jackson and Clark street chanting slogans such as "Chop from the top" and "They say cut backs, we say fight back."  Those arrested were cited for blocking traffic by the Chicago police department and then quickly released on their own recognizance.  Among the proud seniors to be ticketed was Gene Horcher, an active member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucaus.

As with most news associated with the "Occupy" movement, this one was mostly ignored by the mainstream media.  They were too busy worrying over the fate of Michael Jackson's doctor and whether or not him and Kim Kardashian might consider a jailhouse wedding.  One of the few sites to cover the story in any detail was the Huffinton Post.  Shame on you Chicago media.  You dropped the ball and on Bill Kurtis day to boot.  Somewhere right now Bill is shaming you in his perfectly poised A&E voice. 

While reading about the event and watching footage of the arrests on Youtube, I couldn't help but wonder how this might have ended differently if those protestors had been just a few years younger.  After all, police were not quite so nice to Occupy Chicago members when they tried to camp in Grant Park.  Instead of simply receiving a fine they were hauled off in paddy wagons to a holding cell for processing.  Perhaps the thought of taking elderly and disabled Chicagoans to jail while being filmed was too much for our new police superintendent or maybe Mayor Emmanuel (a.k.a. "IL Duce") got the message--less arresting and more fining.  Better for the city coffers.  Less costly. 

In any event, it was a largely peaceful event that drew attention to yet one more aspect of life in the Age of Austerity.  Under the guise of public/private partnerships, government services are increasingly being eliminated or turned over to corporations.  Public housing in Chicago and the infamous parking meter deal are just two of the more visible examples of this process at work.  Once a favorite tactic of King Richard II (a.k.a. former Mayor Richard M. Daley) to placate his minions with easy gained gelt, it is now argued as being a necessity for the city's survival. 

Chicagoans would do well to not only join these seniors in protesting the cuts proposed to public services for our neediest residents but also to read the work of David Harvey.  One of the foremost theorists of Marxist theory today, whether you agree with Harvey's politics or not, his assessment of privatization is as chilling as it is accurate.  He shows how big business has come to a point where it no longer needs the nation state and is therefore in the process of dismantling it.

Soon, it seems, we will all be citizens of multi-national corporations.  Beholden to Walmart or Cisco Systems for our electricity, air, and water.  Those not part of the new Corporate States will languish in a Third World similar to the setting of Escape From New York or Mad Max

Is this future inevitable?  Only if we sit on our asses and worry about Kardashian.  It's time to hit the streets people while there is still time.  Occupy movements are scattered throughout the United States and all over the world.  For more information on what's going on in Chicago visit this website:

Go for a few hours on a weekday, during your lunch break, or over the weekend but DO SOMETHING NOW before the Corporate State becomes a reality rather than a metaphor.  Neo-Liberalism is a virus.  Once in the blood in must be fought with vigor or it WILL KILL THE HOST. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lego Man Goes to Florida

After the heaviness of my last few posts, I thought that readers might appreciate a bit of levity.  So here goes. 

Last week an 8ft tall 100 pound fiberglass statue floated ashore on Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota, FL.  Made to look like one of the Lego figurines that come with their popular building kits, the statue had the following message printed in the middle of its body--"No Real Than You Are."  The name Ego Leonard and the number 8 appeared on the back. 

Image courtesy of
Authorities are still mystified about who placed this giant Lego figurine in the water and why.  Residents of Sarasota initially thought it was a P.R. stunt on the part of the new Lego land theme park that had opened near by.  When contacted, Lego land officials denied any connection to the statute that washed ashore but expressed a bit of envy that they hadn't thought up such a great advertising gimmick.  Currently the statue is in the custody of local police.  If it is not claimed within 90 days, it will be given to Jeff Hindman, the early morning beach walker who found the statue. 

The quirkiness of this story more than anything caught my attention.  We are so busy trying to seal our borders from "illegal aliens" these days that the thought of a giant Lego Man washing ashore in Florida is well--freaking hilarious.

Lego Man's emergence also exposes two interesting aspects of American character.  One is the almost complete lack of humor possessed by most government authorities.  The Sheriff's department seems more concerned about who owns this large piece of fiberglass than why it showed up on the beach in the first place.  They also seem oblivious to the fact that (gasp!) it might simply be a piece of performance art.  Ego Leonard, a Dutch artist, has done similar stunts all around the world.  The other is the greedy nature of some of my fellow citizens.  Jeff Hindman has stated that if the police do turn the Lego Man over to his custody, he plans to sell it on EBAY.  Needless to say, he's hoping that the police attitude of this statute as being primarily part of a lost and found case remains constant.

So much for whimsy.  Here's a thought.  Why not buy Lego Man a nice tropical print shirt, a straw hat, and a drink.  He was just hanging out at the beach after all until some jerk arrested him and locked him in jail. Way to go Mr. Policeman.  Ruining a dude's bodacious vacation plans. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Operation Richard J. or 68 Convention Take Two

All hell broke loose in Oakland, CA this Tuesday as police attempted to prevent Occupy Oakland protesters from reentering Ogawa Plaza.  The Mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, had earlier issued an order to police to remove the protesters due to the "unsanitary conditions" that existed in the Plaza.  Not content to barricade the Occupy Oakland group from the park, the police decided around 8:20pm Pacific Time to use tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds to drive protesters away from the park and prevent them from reoccupying the site. 

Here is a YouTube video that was posted as the events were unfolding.  I'm still stunned as I watch it now for the fifth time.

Many members of the Occupy Oakland movement were injured in this confrontation with the Oakland police.  Among them was a veteran of the Iraq war--Scott Olsen--whose skull was fractured (presumably by a tear gas canister). 

Like most people who watched these events unfold, I am still trying to make sense of all that happened.  Two observations occur to me now that I would like to share with my readers: 

First, this event feels like a turning point in the Occupy movement and perhaps might end up in retrospect being seen as the defining moment for Generation Y in the same way that the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago shaped the Boomer Generation.  As one woman mentioned on Twitter, it's events like these that turn ordinary people into revolutionaries.  How can one stand on the sideline while citizens are brutalized by those paid to protect them?

Second, what happened on Tuesday reflects the complete and utter uselessness of mainstream media.  As the police moved in with tear gas guns, all the live camera feeds at the Oakland TV stations went dark.  One station (CBS) took the cynical approach of showing an image of the capital building in Washington, D.C. as if to say "everything is alright."  Cheap Third World Dictators do that same thing. After the fact, these stations realized their gaffe, missing perhaps the most important news story of the year, and put reporters into the field on subsequent days.  But as the events unfolded it was only through social media such as Twitter that reliable news could be gathered one bit at a time. 

I found myself that night unexpectedly thrown by technology into the middle of history.  Checking my Twitter feed before going to bed, I saw a young woman's tweet (resent by one of my followers) that exclaimed "My God, they're teargassing us.  I'm fcking terrified."  I thought it was a joke until I found more and more tweets appearing saying much the same thing.  Then I followed a link in one of the tweets to YouTube and found the video above, along with hundreds of photos taken by camera phones, and haunting audio clips. 

Generally speaking, I find citizen journalism to be nearly as empty-headed as mainstream media.  For some reason we care more as a society about Lady Gaga's eating habits and unfortunate clothing choices than we do the issue of social inequality.  Here, however, citizen journalism worked.  Technology made it possible for ordinary people to tell the world what was really happening. 

What happens next remains a mystery.  Occupy Oakland has been relatively quiet in the days since Tuesday.  It seems that those in power are waiting for the weather to resolve the problem, thinking that practical concerns (i.e. frostbite) will end the protests better than police evictions.  My hope is that the movement does not lose steam but keeps up its steady pressure.  Already there actions are having significant effects.  Obama has started to make much of their language his own as he begins to campaign, whether it is meant sincerely or not is a different story, and banks such as Bank of America have started to back off their increases in fees and engage in an aggressive public relations campaign.  A few more careful pushes and lasting change is possible. 

Here's a song to close my post.  In honor of Mayor Quan who seems to have chosen as her subconscious mentor Richard J. Daley--the man for whom police "defended dis-order."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Tyrant on Ice

There's been so much worth writing about this week that I've been slow putting out my weekly blog post.  Protests by the 99% are spreading across the nation and the world.  Here in Chicago 175 were arrested for camping past curfew in Grant Park.  In Greece, an AP photo shows two very stylish young women (one carrying a Coach bag) running away from police armed with tear gas as riots again erupt in downtown Athens.  Perhaps the anarchist pooch Riot Dog will make a reappearance.  One can only hope.  Rural America hasn't been exempt from turmoil this week either as a private zoo was on the loose near Zanesville, OH.  Signs were put up along the road warning people to stay in their cars as "wild animals are on the loose." 

In fact, so much was happening in the past few days that the death on Thursday of Libya's former dictator Moammar Gaddafi nearly went unnoticed.  For well over a month the National Transitional Council has served as the internationally recognized ruler of Libya with Gaddafi presumed to have either fled the country or to be hiding near his hometown of Sirte.  Although the details remain sketchy, apparently Gaddafi was found in a sewer pipe outside of Sirte and dragged out by his captors.  Cell phone photos and videos don't show who killed him or how, but the image of his bloody and swollen corpse was rapidly sent out over the Internet.  Even as conservative a site as the BBC showed the dead leader on display.  The message was clear--the nearly 9 month war in Libya is over.

Viewing the photo of this dead tyrant I couldn't help but feel a sense of disgust and shame.  No matter how evil the person they deserve to be treated with some dignity, especially if we plan to claim moral superiority over them.  There is no dignity at all in having ones bloody corpse placed in a walk in freezer at the mall for curious spectators to gawk at.  Additionally, whoever killed Gaddafi denied the Libyan people and the world at large the opportunity to attain real justice rather than simply vent spectatorial indignation.  Unlike Saddam Hussein who was brought before his people to account for decades of repression, Gaddafi has been prematurely spared from a true accounting for his crimes. 

UN inspectors have vowed to look into the manner of Gaddafi's death and the National Transitional Council has pledged to do the same.  The results at this point won't matter much.  Libya will move forward into an uncertain future and Gaddafi will become another footnote in North Africa's long narrative of petty tyrants.  It's a shame Reagan isn't alive.  He might have had something pithy to say.  More than likely, he'd be in line with the spectators gawking at the dead body of this small and pitiful man. 

Rest in peace Gaddafi.  You're dead now.  And I hope this proves a useful lesson to you.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Washington Circa 1894--Remembering Jacob Coxey

Many of my friends have asked me recently "what do you think about occupy Wall Street?"  In answer to their question I've typically replied that I am cautiously optimistic that these protests on behalf of the 99%, which seem to spread a little more every day, will lead to changes in our nation's financial policies and towards greater job growth. 

I've also heard a lot of my friends and colleagues draw comparisons between these protests and the 1960s movements for Civil Rights.  But a more appropriate analogy seems to me that of Jacob Coxey's "Industrial Army." 

If you think things are bad now, you should have been alive in 1893.  For blue collar employees, unemployment in some parts of the United States reached a whopping 25%.  Jacob Coxey, a populist political figure from Ohio, organized about 100 unemployed men to take part in a march on Washington, D.C.  They would walk, hitchhike, or travel by any other means available on their way to the capital to protest the need for the Federal Government to create jobs and stop the uncontrollable profiteering of those on Wall Street. 

The number of marchers ebbed and flowed throughout the protest and their message was so diffuse that most newspapers labelled them an army of hobos out looking for a handout.  It didn't help that a man named "General" Charles T. Kelley started his own march from the west coast, which gradually developed into precisely what the newspapers claimed.  Both Washington, D.C. and Wall Street ignored these groups.  It wasn't until the Pullman Strike of 1894 that worker protests garnered some attention. 

Beginning in Chicago, the Pullman strike gradually shut down railroad traffic in the entire western United States.  President Cleveland, pressured to do something about it, sent the U.S. army to Chicago to put down the strike.  With commerce affected, suddenly those in power were paying attention. 

So what's the lesson we take from this in 2011?  Money really does talk.  Find a way to stop its flow and you'll get the attention of those in power.  If Occupy Wall Street remains a small group of vocal protesters who are "mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more," bank executives will continue to walk over them on their way to work.  All the while muttering how great the First Amendment is.  Take your money out of their banks.  Stop buying goods from disreputable companies.  In fact, stop working at all in large enough numbers.  Then see what happens. 

I admire Gandhi, but his concept of peaceful protest doesn't work in all times and places.  What's needed here is some good old fashioned Gilded Age conflict.  Then we'll see some lasting financial reforms. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gotta Revolution?

You don't need me to tell you that things are getting bad in the United States.  More and more families are falling behind on their bills and the smell of desperation is filling the air.  Forced from their homes by foreclosures and job losses, tent cities (called Obamavilles by one smart-alleck commentator) have begun to spring up in states as far apart as Florida, Nevada, Michigan, and New Jersey.  Protests against the financial industry by a group referring to itself as the 99% have also started to spread from Wall Street to other major cities in the country, including Chicago.  On Tuesday evening I witnessed about 35-40 protesters marching from Chicago's Federal Reserve Bank to the campaign headquarters of President Barack Obama in the Aon Center. 

Americans are seriously pissed off.  Men and women who have worked hard all their lives to achieve a comfortable middle class life with a modest house, car, a few kids, and some nice electronic toys are waking up to the fact that sometimes doing the right thing doesn't do any good.  Class lines that once were lightly sketched onto the fabric of the nation are now hardening into thick and rigid lines. Increasingly credit score is destiny and few are those who can boast 650 (average) let alone 700. 

Where will all this frustration eventually lead?  History tells us that such unrest can go in a number of directions.  One is towards violent revolution of the kind that transformed France in the 18th century and Russia in the 20th.  The other is to the edge of cataclysm leading to reform.  This restless energy is what gave us the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  It's too early yet to know which path our nation will take.  One major cause for concern, however, is the large number of young men and women amongst the ranks of the disenfranchised.  A visit to the site "We are the 99 Percent" <> shows a disturbingly high percentage of young college educated people among the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed. 

A nation that cannot find gainful employment for its future generation is in serious trouble.  Washington, D.C. has shown itself incapable of making any meaningful contributions to this problem.  Bankers and large businesses, most of which are international corporations, have shown themselves largely indifferent to events on the streets.  After all, if things go bad here they can simply pick up their money and go somewhere else.  So what's to be done?

Beats me.  But I'm keeping my eyes and ears to the streets.  We live in very interesting times and they're only going to get more colorful. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Saving the Post Office

On Tuesday, postal workers in Chicago held a rally outside the Thompson Center in the pouring rain.  They were protesting plans to close several Chicago area post offices and eliminate Saturday mail delivery in the city. 

Although I sympathize with any worker struggling to keep their job in this tight economy, the postal service isn't what it used to be.  I live just a few blocks away from a post office whose New Deal Era grandeur in terms of architecture is in stark contrast to the service inside.  No matter what time of the day you enter this branch, a line stretches nearly to the full length of the building.  To make matters worse, the postal service offers far more shipping options than FedEx or UPS and those options are not properly listed in a way deciperable by the patron. This leads to long Q&A sessions at the service window that could have easily been avoided by better signs.  And don't even get me started on the self-service machines.  Half the time they don't work and even if they do you typically need to give any packages over 13 ounces to a postal employee for visual inspection before it can be placed in the mail.

To make matters worse, employees at this branch are perhaps the rudest people I have ever met. When a customer has the temerity to ask for clarification about one of the mailing services available, they are greated with a mixture of scorn and disgust.  As if to say, "Didn't you read the sign?  How could you be so dumb?"  Well, my dear, we read the sign.  We couldn't figure out WTF it means.  How does First Class Mail differ from Priority or from Express?  How much does each service cost? (Don't bother asking that question, the answer is too confusing as it depends on weight, distance, and size.)  Do you want delivery confirmation or would you prefer to send it certified mail? 

In some areas of life, less choice is better.  I would argue that streamlining the services currently offered by the post office would make it much more pleasant and efficient to use.  And, perhaps, save the jobs of a few of those grumpy employees behind the brass cages.  How about a rate for shipping packages based solely on weight?  Ever consider charging for mail based simply on distance?  Just a thought.  Maybe then I'd know how much money to bring with me and what to ask for when I need to ship something across the county or the other side of the nation. 

So much ink and TV air time has been spent bemoaning the digital age's affect on the mail but the reality is that our current postal service is too arcane for average people to use and the employees rather than helping the customer navigate this bureaucratic maze simply make fun of them as neophytes.  It's time for a change and eliminating services rather than post offices is where it needs to begin.  People will use the U.S. postal service if the price is right and if they can easily figure out how to get their packages and mail where it needs to go on time.  Meanwhile, I'm still waiting in line, wondering about the difference between certified mail and delivery confirmation.  Hopefully the post office doesn't go out of business before I get to the window.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Genius Abounding

Well, it's that time of year again.  And no I'm not talking about the way that dirty Uncle Sal tends to leer at young women in Lincoln Park in the fall.  I'm referring to the awarding of the MacArthur Genius Grants. 

Every year around this time the Chicago-based MacArthur foundation offers $500,000 grants to a select group of people from highly diverse backgrounds.  That money can be used however they choose.  It is meant primarily to acknowledge and support the continued development of ideas that change the way we look at as well as inhabit the world. 

Among this year's recipients is Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.  Even if her name isn't familiar to you, the design of one of her buildings probably sticks in your mind:  Aqua.

Situated on the Chicago river just blocks from Navy Pier, Aqua is an unusual high rise.  The outside of the building is not dominated by glass and steel like many of those surrounding it.  Instead there are waves of light grey concrete with blue glass in the background.  The effect of this design is to create the impression that you are looking at ripples of water and it is especially impressive to look at when the sun shines on the building's exterior. From a tenant's perspective, these waves are also appealing as they make each patio in the building unique both in shape and depth. 

The design challenges that Gang must have faced in composing this building alone qualify her for genius status (at least in my humble opinion).  Each floor had to be engineered on its own and then calibrated to function with the ones above and below it.  Added to my admiration for her work, however, is that Aqua is also a fully functional residence.  Unlike certain other works that embody an architectural ideal, Aqua is livable as well as eye catching.  This is something that not many architects seem capable of accomplishing.  A lot of Chicago's skyline is dominated by either the supremely ridiculous or the blandly functional.  Kudos to Gang for avoiding both extremes.

In addition to the MacArthur foundation's accolades, Gang is also being honored by the Chicago Humanities Festival.  She will be giving a talk on Tuesday, November 8 at Northwestern's Thorne Auditorium.  Check out this link for more details:

And on that note, I end this week's unusually positive column.  But ladies, do take note.  If you see Uncle Sal in your rambles through Lincoln Park, don't stare back.  It just encourages him. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

What's Wrong With A Longer School Day?

Sparring between teacher's unions and school administration is nothing new.  But here in Chicago this perennial bickering has taken a disturbing turn.  In recent months both Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the new public schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard have been dangling a carrot in front of the mouths of overworked and underpaid Chicago area public school teachers.  If you agree to let us lengthen the hours of instruction at your school, you'll get a 2% raise. 

The bait apparently has started to work as individual schools have begun to break ranks with the Chicago Teacher's Union, which is currently led by long-time public schools teacher Karen Lewis.  In part this is the result of Lewis's tone deaf leadership of the CTU as well as the impossible public relations task she and her staff faces.  How do you convince the residents of Chicago that a longer school day is a bad thing?  And, when the CTU has been bickering for raises, why would you turn down a 2% increase? 

Although I am no fan of Lewis, who if she bothered to read the newspapers would know that NOW is NOT the time to be asking for more money anywhere in the world, I am disturbed by what is clearly an attempt by a Democratic Mayor to engage in Union Busting. 

One would think in a town so tied to organized labor that unions wouldn't be such a dirty world, and yet they are.  The CTU is just one of several singled out by corporate capitalists and their fanboys/fangirls for attack.  We are told that these teachers, and here they are referring primarily to teachers with seniority who are the bulk of the CTU's active membership, are leeches on the city coffers.  They are greedy pigs lining up at the trough to get their dough while the rest of us suffer from stagnating wages and crushing debt. 

Lewis has only made this public relations problem worse with her brash in your face, my way or the highway style.  Not only does it make those on the outside of education circles see teachers the way anti-unionists want them to but it also makes them wonder what teachers like Lewis are like inside the classroom.  Do they bully students the way they are bullying anyone that dares to question their demands. 

Collective Bargaining is a hard earned right of the working classes.  Our ancestors died on the streets and starved during lockouts and strikes to earn it.  Let's not mess things up by forgetting that you can't demand money that doesn't exist.  Let's also not forget the first rule of education:  always have an open mind.  It's time to listen Mrs. Lewis rather than pontificate.  And you, Mr. Brizard, need to remember that you are still a guest.  Chicago doesn't know you yet.  You don't make friends by crapping on their lawn. 

Update:  Brizard tries to make nice in a letter to CPS teachers.  You can read a transcipt of it at Chicago Tribune reporter Eric Zorn's blog:

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Missed Opportunity

As the 10th Anniversary of  the event simply known as 9/11 approaches, I find myself torn in a number of directions.  The loss of life on the four hijacked airplanes as well as in New York City and at the Pentagaon is certainly tragic.  Yet at the same time, I can't help but feel that the United States lost a great opportunity not long after the event to connect itself to the world.

Pain is a universal language.  Everyone has experienced it at some time.  So is sadness.  Outpourings of sympathy and suppport streamed into the United States after this event.  Especially from nations where events like these are far too commonplace.  In Tel Aviv, bus riders wonder every day if they will get to work safely or be blown to bits by a bomb. 

Here we experienced one horrendously tragic event and rather than dealing with the pain our nation went to war. 

Recent studies have called into question the "5 Stages of Grief," saying that they are too rigid and abstract to represent the reality of emotional pain.  The fact remains, however, that the United States jumped quickly from denial that we had been attacked to anger and we appear to never have left that second stage.  Rather than accept that horrible things happen frequently to innocent people we launched a  childish "war on terror" to banish an abstraction-fear-from our lives. 

Not only can we never win a war against fear but we also repel those who care about us most when we live consumed by anger.  The time has come for the wars we are engaged in to end.  Let the armor down and the sadness in.  Only then can the nation heal. 

In order to be secure as a people, we need friends around the world.  On 9/11 we had thousands of friends in unlikely places.  Refusing their help, we made ourselves less secure. 

With these thoughts in my mind, I can think of no better way to commemorate the tragedy that is 9/11 than the one I have chosen.  I will be re-watching the film The Outlaw Josey Wales.  An excellently filmed Western that reminds us that pain begets pain unless we find a way to heal from it that doesn't involve a gun. 

A Brief Note to My Readers:  Due to the pressures of the upcoming college semester, my posts will be less frequent than before.  You can, however, anticipate seeing a new post once a week on Fridays.  Thank you for your readership.  As always, I hope you find something here you enjoy or find thought provoking. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Watching the Company You Keep

From an early age parents and teachers have warned us about who we choose for our friends.  Now it would seem Uncle Sam is getting into the act. 

Under something known as the "material support" law, Federal agents may subpoena you to testify before a grand jury and/or arrest you based on suspicion of a relationship with a person or group that they consider "terrorist."  If convicted of providing aid to that person or group, a person would face up to 15 years in Federal prison. 

The material support law was originally enacted during the Clinton administration, however, it has been broadly interpreted and (to the detriment of civil liberties) greatly expanded since the attacks on September 11th.  Once intended solely to address the giving of money or munitions to groups deemed a threat to United States security, the law's scope has been broadened to include offering such services as legal counsel and language instruction as well as the providing of food and medical supplies. 

Even more disturbing for those activists working in the field of human rights is the mysterious nature of the list the FBI uses to determine which groups are terrorist organizations and which are not.  No one knows for sure which groups have been placed on this terrorist list or why. Thus every time Americans offer support (broadly defined) to people abroad, they run the risk of imprisonment. 

Such was the case of a woman who I will call S.  She travelled with a group of human rights activists to Israel simply to see firsthand the relations between Palestinians and Israelis.  For her troubles, she found herself under suspicion by the FBI.  S. was first asked to speak informally with an agent who would not explain to her the nature of the conversation.  When she refused, a subpoena summoning her before a Federal grand jury appeared.  S. refused to appear before the grand jury as well, demanding to know why she was under suspicion.  So far no further action has taken place.  She remains under suspicion and has no idea why.  Her life is essentially on hold because she took a trip to a region that is on the "watch list" of the United States. 

Listening to S. describe her tangle with the feds, I was not surprised by the government's attempt to over-reach its constitutional authority.  This trend has been common historically during times of national stress.  What bothered me more as  I heard her story was my own growing sense of paranoia.  I kept wondering if someone from the FBI was in the room. Watching us.  Taking down notes about who was speaking.  Would the audience now be drawn into their fishing net?  As a citizen of a Republic, I should not have to worry about such things.  And yet, thanks to a poorly written law that would make a first year legal student blush, the fear was there deep in my gut. 

I wish S. the best in her struggle and although I would need to know more about her case to stand up for her publicly I will say:  Shame on you President Obama and shame on you Attorney General Holder for allowing this law to stand.  I didn't expect much from the Republican leaning Supreme Court but I did hope better of two supposed liberals.  You need to fix or repeal this law ASAP.  Otherwise a lot of Americans, including former President Jimmy Carter, will find themselves in a Federal jail.  It should not be a crime to want a more peaceful and just world.  Furthermore, security should not be purchased at the price of liberty of conscience. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

You are what you eat.

Ordinarily the opening of an all vegan cafeteria on a college campus wouldn't make the news.  This one did, however, because it is in Texas. 

In a state known for its brash politics, swaggering drawl, copious cattle, and firearms the opening of an all vegan cafeteria at the University of North Texas is eye catching to say the least.  What's more, early reports indicate that it's a hit among the students. 

Texas gone vegan, huh.  Is the world coming to an end? 

Before you all run for the hills to await the rapture, it's worth remembering that Texas is also home to Whole Foods, which was founded in Austin.  So perhaps this new vegan cafeteria is not as weird as it sounds.  But if the land of steak and beer has discovered the virtues of the vegetable, this is yet one more indication of how powerful the move towards conscious eating has become. 

More and more shoppers are looking for products with an organic or fair trade label.  Food items that consumers once scoffed at such as buckwheat or had never heard of like quinoa are now staples of the American diet. 

Of course, this shift in diet has not changed American eating habits across the board.  For every one person who shops for bulk grains at Whole Foods there are hundreds who pick up a chicken sandwich at KFC on their way home from work.  What once was a fairly stable climate of cuisine has now become schizophrenic, a trend that reflects the growing class divide in our nation.

Never before has eating healthy been such an obsession and never before has it cost so much.  While those with the money flock to buy peasant food gone chic the poor tend to gravitate towards the dollar menu at fast food restaurants where the four food groups of salt, pepper, sugar, and saturated fat are well represented. 

And so what happens?  The rich get thinner every year while the poor seem to gain at the waistline if not the pocketbook. 

Well meaning people such as the First Lady Michelle Obama are trying to change this as are groups fighting for fair trade and small farm organic production.  But what none of these groups has addressed is how to make these "whole foods" affordable and how to convince people (even if they could afford it) to choose the broccoli over the candy bar. 

Even though there is no easy answer to the problem, one suggestion comes to mind.  Perhaps if the broccoli wasn't such a snob and the candy bar quite so suave more Americans would change their eating habits.  After all, it's not just what you eat that defines you but your attitude. 

Maybe that's why so many meat eaters are standing in line at a vegan cafeteria in Texas. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Memoriam--Mikey C.

On Monday afternoon Chicago Police officer Paul Casasanto was on patrol at North Avenue Beach on his horse Mikey C., named after a police officer killed in the line of duty.  Apparently Mikey C. suffered a heart attack and died within moments of falling to the ground.  He was 18 years old. 

While my heart goes out to Officer Casasanto, the death of Mikey C. highlights an issue that I have commented on before.  Namely, the presence of horses in an urban environment. 

Chicago Police explain their use of horses for police patrols as essential for crowd control.  Being on horseback puts the officer above the crowd and supposedly intimidates would-be protesters.  Perhaps this is true, but I can't help but wonder what impact the crowds and the cars have on the horses.  And what about the literal impact of their hooves on pavement? 

To their credit, the police at least use the horses in a selective way.  They are not part of regular city patrols and typically only are found in the parks rather than on city streets.  The same cannot be said of the carriages that line Michigan Avenue.  These horses are subjected daily to the grit, grime, and noise of the city's streets.  Their feet hit the pavement several times a day.  And as if that wasn't bad enough, residents of the Gold Coast want to prohibit them from urinating on the pavement.  I wonder how a horse is supposed to hold its bladder through a 8 hour shift.  Ponder that one for a moment.  I suppose the carriage driver can stop in traffic to clean it up.  Can you say Sudden Impact!!!

Horses have places where they belong.  These are places where cars tend not to frequent.  I know the cowboy-cult is strong in America, but it seems hopelessly out of place in Chicago.  

Rest in Peace Mikey C.  I hope you're enjoying the clover in the sweet bye and bye.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tagging Marilyn

Among the more unusual things to appear in Chicago while I was away this summer is a 26 foot tall statue of Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe.  This giant bronze monolith is located in Pioneer Court, next to the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue, and displays Marilyn as she appeared in the film "The Seven Year Itch." 

Following in the footsteps of earlier eye catching displays at this same location, Marilyn's statue has attracted a lot of passers by who stop to take pictures.  Unlike the earlier works on display at this site, however, most are not interested in the artist's composition.  Instead they are looking for a chance to walk under Marilyn and see what she's wearing under that windblown dress. 

Perhaps the Greater North Michigan Avenue Merchant's Association really believes the old adage that "sex sells," but I can't help but find the display tacky.  I guess that's why the recent incident on either Friday night or early Saturday morning doesn't bother me that much. 

At some time during that period, a person walked up to the statue and tagged Marilyn's right leg.  Reading the graffiti it seems that someone calling himself "Pistola" was declaring his undying love for "Ariel" in glossy black ink.

I have always been of two minds on graffiti.  On one side there is something called "street art," which is an attempt by artists to not only reclaim public space for the public but express themselves in a medium that people will actually see.  Let's be honest folks, how many of you buy fine art?  This type of graffiti I find appealing.

But on the other side there are certain types of graffiti that are territorial in nature.  They mark a gang's fiefdom and sometimes proclaim the death of a rival foot soldier.  These are signs not of an attempt to open public space but to own it and put others on notice of that ownership.  Think of this type of graffiti as a more violent version of the No Trespassing sign. 

Pistola's work seems more to the street art side of the spectrum than the gang graffiti.  No one in gangland, yet, has been ballsy enough to openly claim the Mag Mile as their turf.  That would after all scare away the rich people and there would be less for flash mobs to steal. 

If you look at the photo of the graffiti, it also has something of a tattoo-like quality to it.(  Crude but just enough of a resemblance to suggests a message on the part of the communicator. 

First, he seems to feel that the image is "camp."  As such it is not sacred and not off bounds to the tagger.  Unlike something like say "The Bean" in Millennium Park, which is more "high-culture" and has perhaps because of that classification miraculously avoided tagging since the park opened in 2004.  (Yes, I know they have tight security there but that never stopped a tagger.  If you don't believe me, read up on Banksy.) 

Second, the tagger seems to believe that this "campy" image is out of date.  Any self-respectable sex kitten walking down the Mile would not dare leave home with out a few well placed "tats."  So he has graciously provided Marilyn with one. 

Now I know that city officials are going to tirelessly search for this tagger and attempt to nail him to the wall.  After all, he committed the unforgivable sin of defacing public property in the tourist section of town.  The folks who paid to erect the statue will also probably paint over this graffiti as soon as possible to pretend it never happened. 

Nonetheless, before this scribbler's lines disappear into the haze of time, we should take a moment to thank him for his message.  If you're going to sell sex, for heaven's sake people MAKE IT UP TO DATE!!!! 

Love the "tat" Norma Jean.  I always knew you were a bad ass. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Smacky Sez

Every good writer has an alter-ego of some kind.  Mine is Smacky.  A seven foot tall catcher's mitt who goes around town trying to knock some sense into the numbskulls and nitwits on the street. 

Smacky has been busy lately as you might imagine with all kinds of weird happenings.  First we discover that the Soviet Union is on the rise and that Elvis died on his birthday.  Then we learn that Global Warming is a vicious myth created by left-wing ideologues who hate small businesses.  To top it all off, we learn that teacher's unions are the reason America is in decline.  Ok... they're a close second to gay marriage. 

So much little time.  Smack!

Friday was a gorgeous day in Chicago so I took Smacky out to lunch with me.  We starting talking about Mayor Emmanuel's 100 Days speech.  Truly a smackable offense.  Then the topic turned, as it often does, to education. 

Why is it Smacky, I said, that teachers are taking so much blame for the failures of our educational system?  He finished chewing his Tuna sandwich and stared me in the eye.  Then he grumbled out, It's because you're all freakin' lazy. You sit around all day reading books pining about the loss of books and how shitty our culture is becoming.  Why don't you go to Target and work for living?

Now Smacky, I said, that's harsh.  Teachers perform a needed service.  Among other things we help students learn critical reading strategies and how to write better papers. 

Smacky started laughing so hard I thought the stiches would come out of his thumb. You certainly are full of yourself Poindexter, he chuckled.  But in case you hadn't noticed cash is king.  People don't want to think they just want to be rolling in dough. 

Well Smacky, you might be right, I said, but I hope not.  I'd like to believe that people still care about the life of the mind and not just the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  Bling you know isn't everything.

Whatever gets you through the night, Smacky said.  He snarfed at me and got up to use the bathroom.  I got up to pay the bill and I had to admit that the greenbacks in my wallet did emit a warm glow as I pulled them out.  Perhaps it was fallout from Fukushima.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Make Way For Texas

A gallup poll taken just a few days ago shows that Texas governor Rick Perry is now the frontrunner among the Republican candidates for President.  As a wise man once said, "It's like deja vu all over again." 

In spite of the negative things that people have to say about the Lone Star State, usually at the same time as they are criticizing "W," it seems that Americans can't help falling for that blend of charisma and bravado that defines a certain breed of Texan. 

Unfortunately for those on the left, Obama seems to have either lost or forgotten his own charisma.  The speeches that once aroused armies of "hopesters" are now replaced by status updates, incoherent pronouncements, and canned populism.  One can only wonder based on his half-hearted attempts to connect with America if Obama wants a second term.

Adding to his difficulties is the decision, made not long after the health care bill was passed, to swerve farther to the centre of the political spectrum.  In doing this he didn't win any new Republican support and he ominously lost a good portion of his electoral base on the left.

Even though he has an officious air about him and is woefully inexperienced in foreign policy, I like Obama as a person and respect him as our President.  But it is in his best interest and that of the nation as a whole to figure out soon what he wants to do.  You're either "all in" as the White Sox say or all out.  And if he is all out, the Democrats need to pick a candidate that will beat the Republican opponent. 

Right now that task shouldn't be hard.  The frontrunner doesn't believe in Global Warming, the second place candidate (Mitt Romney) is like a wind sock going with whatever opinion seems best at the moment, and the bottom is rounded out by a nut job (Michelle Bachmann) and ideological purist (Ron Paul).  Yet everything Obama is doing simply makes the job of these "Mad Men" and woman easier. 

It's time to stop being the great compromiser Mr. President and figure out what you are.  My suggestion is to read up on the Missouri Haberdasher, Harry Truman.  A little plain truth and fist pounding is in order in these troubling times.  Despite what I'd like to believe, no one ever went to a Professor in times of trouble.  Instead they went to the beat cop.  It's time to hit the street.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bright Shiny Things

Do you ever find that technology takes up all your time?  I do.  Every since I was browbeaten by a friend into upgrading to high speed internet, all I ever seem to do is scout the territory of the world wide web.  What are "friends" up to on Facebook?  What's the latest Tweet?  How many, ahem, people have been reading my blog? 

In small doses technology can be a good thing.  It helps us connect with people far away and discover new ways of finding and arranging the information that exists in our world.  One of my newest discoveries is a presentation software called Prezi that ditches the concept of slides in favor of a blank grid where you can arrange data of all shapes, sizes, and colors in whatever pattern you desire.  I have to say, it does take time to figure out how to use this software, but it accomplishes what useful technology is supposed to do.  It helps us think outside the box. 

Here's a link to their website (if you're interested), and no, they aren't paying me to shill their product.

An example of technology that doesn't quite do enough to justify the hype is Facebook.  Combining the concepts of micro-blogging (or if you're old enough to remember it Instant Messaging), file sharing, and email, like the smartphone it is the swiss army knife of the technology world.  And, like the smartphone, it does none of its functions all that well. 

Since I may never be heard from again, I can hear the Facebook squad breaking down my front door as a write these lines, let me quickly expand upon my main gripe with the site.  Becuase it is trying to be all things to all people, a quick search of Facebook will uncover not only friends but corporations and business people, school websites and government agencies.  This mixing of social spheres that don't belong together raises the prospect of serious privacy violations.  Who wants their vacation photos viewed by a boss, teacher, or employee? 

Of course, Facebook has created new privacy settings to deal with this problem, but even with the most diligent efforts on the part of the user, a small screen seperates worlds that real space rather than hyper space used to keep apart.

For the record, as you might have surmised, I do use Facebook.  But I have learned to be circumspect about what I post.  This, of course, defeats the purpose of the site, which constantly asks me what is on my mind.  To Facebook's question, I can only say "I'll wait to tell you when we meet in person for coffee."  In the meantime, just smile and wave.

The next time you hear someone praise the next great thing in the technological realm I have a few suggestions (in no particular order): 

1. Breathe slowly and have a paper bag handy.

2. Ask your best friend to grab your credit cards and hide them somewhere that you'll never look (like the vegetable bin).  Yeah, yeah.  I know.  You're a health guru.  So make it the cookie jar.

3. When the hype dies down a few days later.  Try the new technology out.  As long as it's free.  Then stop to reflect on what it actually adds to your life. 

4.  If you can honestly say that it has broadened your horizons, embrace that technology.  Then find ways to share it with your friends. 

Remember dear reader, all that glitters isn't gold and the next bright shiny thing is tomorrow's decor in a third world landfill.

That's my 33 1/3 cents.  Adjusted for inflation.  What's yours?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

That Sinking Feeling

Early Saturday morning a Chicago man driving to work suddenly found himself at the bottom of a massive sinkhole on Elston avenue near Foster.  20 feet wide and twelve feet deep, the hole was large enough to swallow the man's SUV and require a ladder for him to climb out. 

Given the current state of our economy, this story somehow seems appropriate.  Many of you out there with retirement accounts can probably relate to the bewildered driver standing at the bottom of this massive hole.  Shaking your head and thinking "I was on my way to work.  What the f*** happened?" Only in your case you can blame the geniuses on wall street.  The Chicago driver got his rude awakening from a 100 year old water main running under the street.

Of course, it remains to be seen what passer by is going to provide us with the ladder to climb out of the hole our national economy is in. 

News reports tell us the Congressional Super committee is supposed to meet in the near future and begin deliberating on the cuts to government spending Obama had to agree to in order to raise the debt ceiling.  And even though they sound like a team of heroes from a Marvel comic, the committee makeup reveals the sad reality that no one in Congress wanted the job.  How does "hatchet-man or woman" look on a resume?  Hmmm....I'll have to get back to you on that one. 

There is also an effort under way, spear-headed by House Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, to pass a new jobs act tentatively called "The Emergency Jobs to Restore the American Dream Act."  This act would encourage the growth of jobs in health care, police, and fire as well as infrastructure repair to our schools. 

Together these actions represent the two ends of the spectrum on the growing debate going on about how to "fix" the American economy. 

One side sees debt reduction and the elimination of unnecessary services as the answer to our problems.  Of course, the idea of eliminating a carrier battle group or two doesn't come up in that discussion.  Lord knows we need 11 aircraft carriers to take down a squad sized terrorist cell.  Or maybe Republicans are anticipating a return of the Cold War?  Iowa Republican straw poll winner Michelle Bachmann just announced on Thursday after all that not only was the Soviet Union alive and well but "on the rise."  (Subsequent reports note that Lenin was flattered while at the same time laughing his ass off.)

The other argues for job creation as the primary solution.  Typically these are government jobs, but from what I've seen in Schakowsky's bill it looks like government agencies would not directly employee these workers (unlike many of  Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal jobs in the 1930s)  but instead would oversee dispersal of funding to private companies and municipalities who would then need to provide evidence of job creation to maintain their federal funding. 

Whether either of these plans will work remains to be seen.  One thing, however, is clear.  The American Dream as it was articulated by the Baby Boom Generation is gone.

If there's any good news to report here, it's that the Chicago Water Department says the Elston avenue sinkhole should be repaired by Monday morning.  Just in time for rush hour.  Wish I could say the same about the economy. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Monetizing the Mind

How many students can you turn out in an hour?  I can get five of Professor Dalton's class for the price of one of Professor Smith's.  Can you deliver my son or daughter to me 50% faster than the competing brand?  I'll wait until the Chemistry 104 class is on sale.  Besides, I hear a new model is coming out next year.

Does the above sound ridiculous to you?  If not, then you probably won't be interested in this article.  It does, however, sound utterly looney to me.  Statements like those above have yet to find their way onto the college campus thank God, but it's only a matter of time as the business and service industry ethos behind them can now be found everywhere in the field of Higher Education today.

The idea behind this ethos is that education is a commodity to be bought and sold.  Students are the consumers of that product and faculty along with the staff that supports them the producers.  Even among those who do not believe that education represents a product, the feeling is still strong that colleges are distributors of pre-existing product, offering a needed service to their respective communities for purchase. 

As an educator, it would be going against my nature to argue that schools do not offer a necessary service to their students.  I am leery, however, of focusing too much on the bottom line.  Some things after all have an intrinsic value that a savvy trader at the Board of Options Exchange wouldn't notice and, even if he did, he probably couldn't monetize.

In such a volatile economy where jobs growth is stagnant and fears of recession loom ominously over our heads, its easy to focus on the material things.  They represent security for us.  Education in particular has taken on a lot of unecessary baggage in the last three years as Americans see it as a rocket for their stalled ambitions or a lifeboat saving them from a descent out of the middle class. 

Let me be clear.  I desire for my students to achieve a better life and succeed in all they do.  But I am NOT training them in the classroom for a job or giving them the manual for entry to the middle class.  Instead I am encouraging the growth of a way of thinking and interpreting the world that will give them rhetorical power.  How they use that power is up to them.  My hope is that they will use it not simply to earn cash in whatever vocation they choose but to make the world a slightly better place than it was when they entered it. 

Am I naive in believing and hoping for this?  Perhaps.  But I'm not that concerned about what the materialists in the board rooms of America think of me.  When the iPhone, blogs, Twitter, and even the Urban metropolis itself are part of the historical record, the life of the mind will remain.  And it will be from that properly cultivated mind that new ideas emerge to shape the world-for the better or for the worse.

If you've been following my blog posts (and why wouldn't you dear reader?), you have probably noticed the deviation in tone from this post and the highly sarcastic ones that preceded it.  I know that Royko would forgive me for this as there were even things that he would not joke about.  Education is my "no joke" issue.  I care about my students and I don't like what's happening to them.  They're being cheated by a short term policy on education that masquerades itself as a jobs program. Such toying with peoples' hopes is a crime. 

That's my 33 1/3 cents, adjusted for inflation.  What's yours?

The Naked Truth About Independent Contractors

A recent Chicago Tribune article reported a lawsuit pending against Michael Wellek the former owner of three suburban Chicago strip clubs.  The lawsuit was filed by Argyro Roula Manis who worked as a dancer at two of his clubs.  She is not only seeking five years of unpaid wages due to mysterious pay deductions and denied overtime claims but also to turn the case into a class action lawsuit involving all the women who worked for Wellek at his three clubs during that period. 

Wellek is currently serving the third month of his 1 year sentence in a minimum security prison in Duluth, MN after pleading guilty to tax evasion and being ordered to pay the IRS over 5 million dollars in restitution.  Aside from rubbing salt in Wellek's already wounded ego, this new case against him raises awareness of one of the fastest growing trends in employment.  No, not stripping.  The rise of the independent contractor.

The main basis of Wellek's defense against Manis is that she and the other dancers in the club weren't directly working for him.  They were self-employed labor working in the space that he provided them.  This allowed Wellek not only to lower his tax indebtedness but also to manipulate the pay he provided to the dancers.  Whether there is any validity to either Wellek or Manis' claims is up to the courts to decide.  One thing, however, is clear.  Independent contractors are far more vulnerable to fraud and breach of contract violations than traditional full time employees. 

Ideally an independent contractor should have a contract signed between them and the person they are engaging to work with.  That contract should stipulate the term of employment, the expectations, and the compensation.  It should also explain the remediation options open to either party if any of those obligations aren't met.  Otherwise it's like living in an apartment without a lease.  You can be evicted or see the rent go up at almost anytime and for nearly any reason. 

The reality is that most independent contractors are either hired on at the last minute or are agressively courted by employers in fields that don't tend to attract full time workers.  Either way, the boss is in a hurry to fill the position and the prospective worker is usually in a hurry to start earning money.  This haste can often lead to bad consequences down the line. 

Structural changes in the United States economy have made the independent contractor, for better or worse, the new normal.  This virus not only killed my first chosen profession--Journalism--but is in the process of undermining Higher Education and gutting what's left of the Unions in this country.  Cheaper is not always better and "flexibility" is a fancy way for employers to say they don't want to pay for your health care. 

Hourly workers in the United States, especially those in Unions, need to start paying more attention to independent contractors.  With a shift in the market, that untethered worker could easily be you.  Unions also need to work harder on behalf of the independent contractor.  Ideally such positions should be eliminated with targeted political pressure but at the very least the conditions of these workers needs to be better regulated. 

Even a Strip Club sometimes can teach us a lesson.  Of course, if anyone asks, you never saw me there. And I certainly did not see you.  ; )

Friday, August 19, 2011

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Lone Wolf?

In an interview earlier this week, President Obama stated that America faced greater danger from a "lone wolf" attacker such as the one in Norway than from an organized group of terrorists like that faced on 9/11. 

For the record, I agree with him.  And it's because of that agreement that I have to ask--What are we still doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? 

If you turn your memory back to the Bush presidency and the months following 9/11, you'll recall that the rationale for invading Afghanistan was to prevent future attacks from Al Qaeda.  We were destroying sites of "refuge" for "global terror" that posed a threat to our existence as a nation.  The Iraq war rationale was much more tenuous but related to that of the earlier conflict.  Regime change in Iraq and an effort to reshape their country into a liberal democracy were supposed to secure our own safety.

Fast forward now to 2011.  50,000 soldiers are still in Iraq but (we are told) are due to return home at the end of this year.  In fact, they might be thrown out as Iraqi clerics have threatened to declare a Fatwa against us if we don't leave by that deadline.  More than 100,000 troops are currently in Afghanistan and even with gradual troop draw downs some U.S. soldiers are slated to stay there until at least 2014. 

Given the fact that these are now the longest wars in U.S. history, one has to ask--Has either conflict actually made us safer?  I guess the answer all depends on how you define safety.  No more 9/11 style attacks have happened on U.S. soil since 2001.  But was it our intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan that led to this outcome?  I seriously doubt that anyone, even George W. Bush, would be so foolish as to argue for a direct causation between the absence of organized terrorist attacks in the United States since 2001 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This lack of a clear cause and effect relationship leaves us with a less than satisfactory answer for our continued involvement in these wars.  We're there because we're there and its good that we're there. 

While Americans were busy since 2001 fighting and dying in the "war on terror" in the far corners of the earth, the greatest dangers we faced have been homegrown in variety.  Someone like the mentally ill community college student that shot Arizona Senator Gabrielle Giffords and the far too numerous school shootings that have occurred throughout the nation. 
Terror it seems has no army, no fixed place to fight it in battle.  Instead it has a hundred heads.  Most of which have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. And as for the high minded task of nation building, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are anywhere near to becoming liberal democracies.  The history just isn't there.  Once we leave Iraq, if we are lucky they will become a dictatorship run by moderate Islamic politicians.  If not, we will have singlehandedly created a new ally for Iran.  As for Afghanistan, Karzai must see the writing on the wall.  Once we leave his head will be put on a pike and tribal warfare will resume. 

The only way we can retrieve some dignity from this debacle is to admit our mistakes as a nation and learn from them.  But I don't see that happening.  We have a long history of knee-jerk nation building and an even longer one of moral certitude.  Just ask the Native Americans. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Please, Pay ME Not to Wear Your Clothes.

A story on the BBC website reports that clothing maker Abercrombie and Fitch has asked Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino of MTV's popular television show Jersey Shore not to wear their clothes any more.  In fact, they have gone so far as to offer him and the entire cast of the show "a substantial" payment, according to the company, to induce them to switch to another brand.  The company claims that this move was taken to protect Abercrombie from what they viewed as bad publicity caused by Sorrentino's antics on the show. 

I have to admit that I'm not terribly fond of Jersey Shore.  The handful of episodes that I've seen are a strange mixture of Girls Gone Wild, The Real World, and a seriously dumbed down version of Goodfellas. That said, in this issue I'm on "The Situation's" side. 

First of all, I think he should take the money.  This is America and Mike Sorrentino is foolish but he isn't a chump.  Then he should remind his TV viewers that Abercrombie and Fitch and its cousin Hollister make clothing for emaciated wussie men.  The vanguard of the armies of entitlement marching to Newport, R.I.  Seriously, who can actually fit into Abercrombie's clothes?  I could not eat for a year and I would still not be able to fit into their largest size. 

Unfortunately, Dear Michael is too dense to bring up the most important point in this otherwise unremarkable sound bite.  So I'll do it for him.  There is an incredible irony in the fact that Abercrombie is worried about sullying a brand that they themselves have frequently tarnished.  How soon we forget their horribly phrased T-shirt slogan "Two Wongs Make it White," playing off of the stereotype of the Chinese laundryman.  Or the lawsuits pending against both Abercrombie and Hollister for employee discrimination against straight men and women who did not appear "suitable" to sell their brand. 

Fashion is an incredibly elitist realm whose denizens get away with a lot because of their looks.  Deep down "The Situation" knows this and more than likely feels envious.  For all his cameras, antics, and bling, Mike is like us.  An average slub.  Perhaps in the end this will become one of a handful of useful lessons to be gleaned from the otherwise painful "reality" that is the Jersey Shore

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Unwelcome Export

The other day I read an article quoting British Prime Minister David Cameron as saying "moral collapse" was the cause of the mass rioting in London and other major cities in the United Kingdom.  Coming from an American politician this statement would not have fazed me.  In fact, I would have seen it as not even worth commenting on.  Thanks to figures such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell (among others) it has become common in the United States to see better fathers and sexual abstinence argued for as the solution to all our problems.  Especially when those problems involve pesky subjects like a bad economy. 

But Cameron's statement had me worried.  Had the political bloviator's of the new world begun infiltrating the old?  After all, France's Nicolas Sarkozy is in the process of applying "American-style" reforms to that country's legendary social welfare system.  And Milton Friedmen's children at the American dominated International Monetary Fund are wagging their index finger at the naughty liberals "over there" in the Euro zone who dared to spend on such trivial things as pensions, healthcare, and educational subsidies.

Austerity it seems is the name of the game in Europe even as we continue to debate the debt ceiling and our national credit rating on this side of the Atlantic.  And given the uncertainty and anxiety that comes with these financial cuts a resurgance of religious faith seems natural.  As any candid person of faith will tell you, however, God doesn't get involved in macro-economics. It's below his pay grade.

Cameron is right in one sense that selfishness, indifference, and greed led to the riots in London but he should have aimed his critique at the British financiers and businessmen who forgot their obligations to English society. The modern social contract popularized by English economist John Maynard Keynes promised citizens a living wage and hope for a better life for themselves and their family.  In return they were asked to invest in their communties as consumers and volunteers. 

It's just a wild guess, but it seems reasonable to assume that people with good jobs and hope for the future wouldn't burn down their own city.  The Keynsian contract has been broken and if these riots are any indication there is going to be hell to pay. 

I don't know enough about European and particularly British politics to know if these shifts in current attitudes are America's fault.  I also can't say where they will eventually lead.  What I can say to Britain and the rest of Europe is:  Please don't become like us.  We need you as a foil.  Besides, it's tiresome being sanctimonious.  It takes up all your time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Once Again Statistics Confirm Common Sense

According to an article by John Hilkevitch in Monday's Chicago Tribune, 80% of crashes involving vehicles and pedestrians occur at the crosswalk.  What's more those crashes occur despite the fact that pedestrians have the walk signal. 

Now don't get me wrong.  I like Hilkevitch and numbers are pretty impressive.  Especially when the little arrow on my IRA fund is going up.  But did we really need a Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) study to prove this?  Just ask any pedestrian in Chicago what it's like out there and they'll tell you that it is open season on the sauntering class. 

One of the worst places in my neighborhood is the intersection of Foster avenue and Broadway.  Here the walk signal represents a dare rather than an assurance.  Do you dare to walk across the street rather than run?  It's even worse if you are carrying groceries from the nearby supermarket.  On more than one occassion I have had cars zoom directly in front of me, turning left onto Foster from Broadway, without even honking their horn.  I have also felt the whizz of tires at my heels as I near the relative safety of the sidewalk on the other side. 

So what is to be done?  Since we already paid for it, Chicago pedestrians should be given a copy of the CDOT study.  Not having read this particular study, I'm nonetheless familiar with the fondness of government publishers for glossy images and charts.  So I'll take a wild guess that this study like most of the others done by CDOT is a nice shiny brick.  Perfect for throwing at drivers as they try to run you over.  How's that for government in action?  At last my tax dollars would be put to good use.

Welcome to My Blog

Hello to all you folks out in the blogosphere and welcome to Man Without a Newspaper.  I decided to start this blog a few weeks ago.  I found myself missing the journalistic writing of my undergrad days and wanted a site where I could indulge in my editorial tendencies.  In a tasteful and incisive way of course.  Topics will vary on my blog but the tone will remain consistent as I consider this space my own personal commentary page.  Hopefully you find something to read here that you enjoy or that at least gets you thinking.