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.