It’s her moment now

corporate table woman

Photo credit: TheAtlantic.com

As Hillary Clinton gets ready to accept her party’s nomination for the presidency tonight, I think back to the Spring of 1987 and a moment that opened my eyes to gender matters like nothing else ever has.

Freshmen students at Northwestern–I don’t remember now whether it was only the Arts and Sciences students or everyone in the class–had to take two Freshman seminars. In the spring, I registered for a course that had something to do with gender and science. Perhaps it fit into my schedule, or perhaps I thought there would be a lot of girls in the course. Either or both reasons sound legitimate to me.

On the first day of class, which was held in a conference room in the library, I walked in and grabbed a chair. The room filled up, and the hour for starting the class came and went.

One of the cherished rules at Northwestern was the “ten minute rule,” which stated that if a professor had not arrived within ten minutes of the class’s scheduled start time, everyone could leave. So we all started watching the clock, hoping that 2:10, or whatever the magic moment was, would arrive soon.

At eight or nine minutes past the hour, the teacher spoke up. She had been seated around the table with the rest of us, and we didn’t know she was in our midst. She pointed out, to the 15 or so students seated around the table, that the seats at the ends of the table were being occupied by the only two male students in the class, because we had been raised to assume that we were entitled to have them.

I shot a frantic look at the guy at the other end of the table, as if to say “What have we gotten ourselves into?” For the rest of the course, I was convinced that everything I turned in started at a “C” and became either a C+ or a C-, depending on whether it made any sense or not. It was a long course, and not a particularly enjoyable one, but I remember it more clearly than any other college course I ever took.

I remember it because it made me realize the effects of gender-specific language. For someone who grew up in a less-than-progressive time (the 1980s) and a less-than-progressive place (Springfield, Illinois), the idea that calling a doctor “he” and a nurse “she” helped to perpetuate gender norms was a revelation to me.

It’s now three decades later,  and I rarely see much of this anymore. Ironically enough, it happens a lot in education, where teachers are routinely referred to as “she.” As a male who taught in the classroom many years ago, this rankled me a bit. Even though teaching is, and probably always will be, a field with many more females than males in it, I realized that sending a message that an unnamed teacher would likely be a woman isn’t good. Men can be teachers too, and the language used to describe teachers should reflect this fact.

Scientists were once overwhelmingly thought of as “he,” but the course taught us of the contributions of Barbara McClintock.  We read a biography about her, and I remember coming away with the idea that telling young girls that scientists were supposed to be men was not helpful to them, or to science itself. Even though I found the class uniquely discomforting as a male, as a person I walked away with an understanding that I didn’t have before.

I say all this because the text of the U.S. Constitution, and specifically Article II, refers to the president as “he” on several occasions. For example, Article II, Section 1 states “He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years,” I’m sure that the Founders, as enlightened and as forward-thinking as they may have been at the time, were still a product of their 18th century upbringing, which wasn’t so dissimilar to my late 20th century upbringing. Boys got to sit at the head of the table, and girls didn’t.

I’m not thrilled with Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and I toyed with the idea of not voting for anyone in this presidential election. I would never vote for Trump, nor would I vote for a third-party candidate if it helped Trump to win. But even with these misgivings, I’m very glad that Hillary Clinton is being nominated for president tonight.

Girls should see themselves as entitled to those seats at the head of the table, just as much as boys already do. And if tonight’s events, and the election that is coming up in November, helps to move that needle then I’m all for it, in the name of my two daughters, my wife, my sister, my mother, and every female classmate and colleague I’ve ever had or ever will have. New possibilities have been opened up, and we’re all better for it.

Unleashing my inner History teacher

wigwam
The room where it happened, 1860 style

I was a history teacher in a previous life, as I like to think of it. It was all during the same life I have now, of course, but it feels like I’m not that person anymore. Will I ever teach again? Who knows? But yesterday I presented something of a lesson to a small section of the internet. The results have been pretty gratifying, too.

On Friday, I was paging through a book by Dale Carnegie titled “Lincoln the Unknown.” I bought it at an estate sale some time ago and, like many of the books I have acquired that way, I didn’t read it right away. My thinking is you can always read a book later, but you have to first acquire them whenever you can.

On the pages of the Carnegie book, which was published in 1932, I found a story about Lincoln’s nomination at the Wigwam in Chicago, shown above, in 1860. I knew that it was the first “western” nominating convention, and Lincoln’s supporters used this to wrest the Republican nomination away from William Seward. I knew that fake tickets had been printed up, and used to pack the house with Lincoln supporters. But every story has details that can add a new wrinkle to what is already known, and this was no exception.

What I learned I tucked away in my brain, and when I saw a post on a Facebook wall from the Bernie Sanders campaign for president, I decided it provided a parallel that could apply to the present. That’s why history matters so much, after all. Patrick Henry said he knew of no way to judge the future but by the events of the past. And here was a moment to put this philosophy to work.

In reply to a post suggesting that Senator Sanders’ wide lead over Donald Trump in public opinion polls makes him a better candidate to face Trump than Hillary Clinton, I wrote the following blurb:

There once was a senator from New York who went to a party convention expecting to win the nomination. But a challenger was able to successfully make the case that he would be a stronger candidate against the nominee from the other party. The year was 1860, the party was the Republicans, the presumptive nominee was William Seward, and the eventual nominee was Abraham Lincoln. I don’t think anyone would have rather had Seward prevail, simply because that was the expected result. Fight on, Senator Sanders. You have millions behind you.

I am a Sanders supporter, and I know that his uphill climb has been sandbagged by a media and a party establishment that has opposed him at every turn. The Clintons are a known quantity, and they are the establishment of the Democratic party in every way. But Senator Sanders has tapped into a wide vein of resentment for this establishment, and has come very far to get to the point, like the Cheers theme song says, where everybody knows his name. He’s won more states, and earned more votes, than anyone imagined he would. But the headwinds against him have reached a gale force recently, and I wanted to help out.

Carnegie’s book pointed out that dissatisfaction with Seward–who was well-known and had the kind of political advantages that Lincoln never did–came from the idea that Stephen A. Douglas was a formidable opponent in the fall election. Lincoln had already run against Douglas in 1858, and was better suited to defeat Douglas than Seward. The persuasion paid off, and Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot in Chicago. And we all know what happened after that.

My post seems to have resonated pretty well, gathering over 1,700 Facebook likes in the 20 hours or so since I posted it. There have been hundreds of replies as well, both pro and con,  and the notifications of all this activity have exploded my email inbox. Let’s say I now understand why many posts don’t allow for comments. They can get messy.

And, in response to someone’s suggestion that my post seemed like a Limerick, I came up with this beauty:

There once was a Senator Will

Who thought a convention was chill

But Abe came along

And proved Will was wrong

Just like Bernie will do unto Hill

That bit of online freestylin’ got another 50 likes, and I’m preserving it here because I’m happy with how it turned out. I’m not Lin-Manuel Miranda or anything, but a rhyme written to inform about the past came to me, and I like the way that feels.

There’s a ton of pressure on Bernie Sanders to drop out, based on the idea that he’s hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances by staying in the race. Seward, back in 1860, rented a cannon and brought it to his estate in New York. The idea was to announce his nomination to the world by firing off the cannon, but he never had the chance to do it. And would the Civil War have happened, and slavery been brought to its much-needed end if Seward had fired off that cannon? We can’t know that, but we can say that Lincoln’s election changed the course of history in a very profound way.

I don’t want Hillary Clinton to fire off her proverbial cannon this summer. I’m convinced that her vote for the Iraq war, and her bellicose actions and language, reveal her to be far too hawkish for my comfort. She’ll speak the language of the Republicans in Congress by leading us into a foreign entanglement somewhere, which will require weapons being used and soldiers being killed. A cannon is a perfect metaphor for her candidacy, actually. Trump, on the other hand, is a horrible danger to life on this planet, and I realize that he must be stopped. But Hillary Clinton is not the way to do that.

There are many reasons not to like her, and my point here isn’t to go through those reasons. For me, she’s a hawk who will lead us to war, which will have disastrous consequences. And I can’t vote for her for that reason alone.

How will this all play out, over the summer and into the fall? I don’t know. But the idea that a candidate should give up when they are behind, in the name of “party unity,” is not an idea that Lincoln went along with in 1860. There’s an election that must be won in the fall, but there’s still a fight to be waged over the summer months. Or, to put it in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s HamiltonWhen you got skin in the game, you stay in the game But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game. So why not keep on playing?

 

A Freudian Slip

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

It’s fitting, in some way, that the trial I served as a juror for ended on Tax Day. I realize that taxes aren’t due until the 18th of April this year, but everyone knows April 15 is the day that we’re supposed to settle up with the IRS by filing our tax returns. Money changes hands on that day, generally in the form of a tax refund that people use for whatever they need some extra money for.

That didn’t happen for me this year. Instead of a healthy refund, I owed something to Uncle Sam, and not a trivial amount, either. But I paid that amount because, well, that’s just what you do. It keeps the National parks open, and pays for social programs and military defense and all the other places our tax dollars go to. Living in America is a privilege that I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t lived anyplace else. But that privilege comes with a price, and the IRS is there to extract part of it from us all, whether we want to pay it or not.

Another price of citizenship in this country is jury service. In my many years of living, I had never served on a jury, of any kind, until this past week. The right to a trial by jury is an enormous gift, and that entails giving up your time when called by the courts to do so.

The trial I served as a juror on wrapped up yesterday, and I made a point to ask the judge if I was allowed to write about the case online. Writing is a form of free, self-induced therapy for me, and I needed to put a few things out into cyberspace, before the experience fades away into memory. I expect jury service to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and after this trial, I very much hope that’s the case.

Part of me wants to get into the specific facts of the case, but that’s not really going to help anything. Painting in broad strokes about what happened is probably good enough, at least for my purposes. I could write a long treatise about the case I was charged with deciding, but the end result wouldn’t change, not even the tiniest bit.

The case had to do with a fraud, pure and simple. The federal government rooted out the defendant’s misdeeds, which were filing tax returns in the name of people who had no idea they were having returns filed on their behalf. Their names and social security numbers, and access to online tax filing software, are apparently all it took to set these wheels into motion.

So prisoner A (We learned his real name and saw him testify in court, but his first name began with A so I’ll call him that here) is doing time. I learned what it was for, but it really didn’t matter that much. He’s serving time, and not receiving any Social Security benefits from the government. But a tax return was sent to the IRS, indicating that not only was he receiving these benefits, but he had a portion of those benefits withheld by the IRS, and he wanted the withheld portion back. It’s a classic case of turning nothing (as in the Social security benefits which were never paid in the first place) into something (as in a few hundred dollars that wound up in the tax preparer’s pocket.

This happened for hundreds of prisoners, and the IRS paid off like a slot machine by depositing the money in waves. There were hundreds of prisoners, and thousands upon thousands of dollars being shoveled out for this scam. The legal term is “scheme,” which sounds a hair more respectable than a “scam,” but this was the scammiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And it makes a mockery out of those who pay taxes and wouldn’t think to  run a fraud like this.

At the close of the trial, on Thursday afternoon, the jury received instructions from the judge about what the relevant law is. We were told to follow those instructions, whether we agreed with them or not. One juror failed to do so, and that vote was enough to result in a hung jury. Our romantic notions of “Twelve Angry Men” and the noble juror who spares a defendant from being wrongly convicted by standing up to, and ultimately persuading, his fellow jurors didn’t apply in this case. Life didn’t imitate art, at least not in this instance.

But the two sides had to give closing arguments before we could begin deliberating, and the otherwise masterful defense attorney nearly gave away the game with one small, practically imperceptible slip. I may have been the only one that noticed it, but it was very telling. It didn’t make a difference, in the end, but I wanted to preserve it here, anyway.

A Freudian slip, also called a parapraxis, is when someone gives away their inner feelings by accident. As the defense attorney was summing up the defects in the government’s case–since they have the burden of proof, his job was to point out the ways they haven’t done so, regardless of whether any such defects actually existed–he said “They have fooled–failed–to show….”

The “fooling” that the defense attorney referred to, in his moment of unintended candor, wasn’t the government’s doing, but his own. He was there to fool the jury into believing that his client had been wrongly accused of defrauding the government–and by extension the taxpayers on the jury and all over the United States–out of withholding proceeds from prisoners who had not receive any Social Security benefits while they were behind bars. All he had to do was fool one juror, and the week’s worth of trial would have gone for naught. And that’s exactly how it played out, too.

I put a picture of Frederick Douglass in this post, because the holdout juror bears a strong resemblance to him. I even thought of him as Fred, though his real name was something else. Frederick Douglass became friends with Abraham Lincoln, and their unlikely rise from the circumstances they were each born into has always inspired me. I will always admire Frederick Douglass, but I’ll probably see pictures of him now and think about the juror who wouldn’t agree with the rest of us on the jury. Life takes some strange twists sometimes.

On my way home from the courthouse, after the verdict had been read and my fellow jurors and I were excused with the thanks of the court, I took a train to a bus in order to get home. The transfer point from train to bus led me to a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which I’ve written about before in this space. I looked up at Lincoln, who is depicted not as the bearded president we all know, but as a clean-shaven Illinois attorney, which he was for many years before he was elected president.

As I looked up at Lincoln’s representation, I tried putting my frustrations with the case into some type of order. And I realized that our legal system, for all of its imperfections, is still something to be proud of. The defendant wasn’t set free by my jury, and he still has to face the prospect of perhaps another trial in the weeks and months ahead. We as jury did what we had been charged with doing. I didn’t like the final result, but it was far from the first time where something I was involved with didn’t end up the way I wanted it to. Those are the breaks, whether in the courthouse or anyplace else in life.

The Lincoln statute reminded me that our legal system is worth preserving and supporting, even if it isn’t perfect. It won’t ever be perfect, but it will always seek to do justice. The truth is  that I’d rather live in such a place than anywhere else.

Everybody wants to rule the World

image

A song by Tears for Fears encapsulates the 80s for me like few others do. And the irony now, all these years laters, is that it was probably in the air when a high school teacher and coach named Hastert was doing some terrible things to trusting young kids.

He went from Yorkville High to third in line to the presidency. He literally did help to rule the world, at least in theory, and made millions in the process. Some of those millions would later be funneled to those who he abused when nobody knew his name. That’s punishment enough for what he did, right? If only if were that simple.

I never knew any of the people involved in this tale, so perhaps it’s not my place to say anything about this. But the good teachers and coaches who want the best for the kids they work with will bear the brunt of Hastert’s actions, far more than he ever will. And that is beyond unfortunate.

High school sucked for me, and I’m not the only one who felt that way. When adults in position of authority and trust use the circumstances of this difficult age of transition for their own benefit, in order to sexually prey on those who are still trying to figure out their own place in the world, all of us suffer, in ways that we may never realize. I’m grateful that nothing like this ever happened to me, but I can easily understand why others were not so fortunate.

After a long and financially rewarding stretch in the halls of power, Coach Hastert’s past finally caught up with him. He paid off his prey, but money alone can’t make everything OK, either for those he molested or the rest of us, as well. He’s old and going to die soon, so perhaps he’ll get what’s coming to him when that happens. But here on earth, his request for probation is an affront to anyone who’s paying attention.

His “family values” and likely unstated opposition to the very behaviors he engaged in as a wrestling coach makes him an outsized hypocrite. Sending him to prison won’t make him any different, but the idea that he can do this and slink off with nothing more than his own shame and humiliation seems wrong, on some level.

I have no doubt he feels bad about what he did, but this is only because it came up again. The abuser can forget his actions however he wants to, but the abused cannot. And to protect those who need it, neither should the rest of us.

Spending an afternoon with my mom

FullSizeRender (23)

There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

A day to honor Lincoln

image150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in Chicago. For those who waited in long lines, there was a chance to move past the president’s body and make the tragedy seem real. I’m sure nobody who made this wait ever regretted doing it.

I hoped there would be some kind of acknowledgement of this fact today, but if there was, I completely missed it. Instead, everything was about the NFL draft, which brings tourism and attention to this city. I understand this, but feel as though a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed. Lincoln deserved better than to be ignored.

I’ll write up everything I did someday, but for now here’s a sample image. I call it “two Lincolns” and there are others where this came from. I even cobbled together a few readings and posted it to my Facebook page. My Lincoln tribute was something I’ll always remember, in part because it came from my own actions. Since nobody seemed to be interested in commemorating Lincoln, I stepped up and did it myself. We cannot do enough to honor his memory.

Remembering the fallen

2014-05-13_09-39-12_395

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the heaviest fighting at the battle of Spotsylvania in the Civil War. A century and a half ago, the Civil War was grinding on and on, with no end in sight. A presidential election was coming up in the fall, and the staggering losses were dimming Lincoln’s reelection chances. We know how it turned out now, but the spring of 1864 must have been a very tense and heartwrenching time for the Union side.

Although Lincoln himself is never too far away here in Chicago, the lack of a battlefield from that conflict can make the war seem remote sometimes. The Confederate mound is on the South side, and I’ve written about it here before, but it seems like a well-kept secret sometimes. And thousands of dead Confederates evidenced the war’s human toll for me, but they were also fighting to preserve a government that was built upon human bondage. It was hard to feel any love for them.

I wanted to take a moment to honor the fallen, not necessarily from Spotsyvania itself, but from the totality of the war that shaped this nation that my family calls home. So I drove to Rosehill cemetery, which I’ve also written about before, and stood among the rows of fallen Union soldiers.

There were hundreds of them in all, and they represented untold numbers of widows, parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins and nephews who had to carry on with their lives after they fell. The lives that were lost were in evidence, but the lives that were forever altered as a result could only be surmised.

I read the names and the dates and the company designations, and wondered how many of these fallen soldiers had someone come to pay their respects. Two men named Stewart from separate companies in Vermont, for example, found their earthly rest a very long way from home. Perhaps they were biologically related, and perhaps they were not. But there they are, 150 years later, lying not too far from each other in a Chicago cemetery. And there I was, wondering about what their stories were, and paying my respects to them and all of their comrades in arms.

I wouldn’t know how to behave in the presence of a slave, or a person who considered himself worthy of owning another human as his property. I want to believe that I would comfort the slave and afflict the slaveholder in any way that I could, but the law would be on the slaveholder’s side, and not mine.

Whether the men who lie buried in Rosehill cemetery opposed slavery or not–and I have no illusions that all of them did oppose it–their sacrifice spared all of us from having to witness the debasing nature of slavery.

Confederates had their principles too, I suppose, but I cannot–and will not–honor their sacrifices. If Davis and Lee and the other Confederates had prevailed, the world today would be so ugly that I can hardly imagine it. It’s a great and glorious thing that what some consider the “lost cause” was, indeed, lost.

The surrender at Appomattox is the symbolic end of the Civil War, but in many ways the war still continues today. Those who had their families torn apart, or who spent the rest of their lives carrying the physical and mental scars from the fighting, have all left us now. Their sacrifices are often lost, amid the sacrifices made in more recent American wars. Those wounds are still fresh, after all. But appreciating the Civil War, with its permanent reordering of American society–both North and South–must also be done.

This piece was written with love and gratitude for the sacrifices they made.

Changing college sports as we know them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Today–March 26, 2014– is the 35th anniversary of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird title game in the NCAA tournament. I remember watching that game as a ten year-old kid in Springfield, Illinois. It was broadcast on NBC, instead of on CBS. There was no three point stripe, no shot clock, and no possession arrow. The NCAA logo was some silly interlocking letters arranged inside a circle. The game followed a third-place game, where the two teams that lost in the Final Four still had one last chance to salvage something. In short, there were still five men on a side and the team that scored the most points won the game, but otherwise the modern sports fan would hardly recognize it.

And on the anniversary of that game, which arguably changed basketball itself for the next decade, the NLRB handed down a ruling that Northwestern’s football players can vote to form a union. There are many writers and fans bemoaning the ruling, saying that it will “change college sports as we know them.” To which I reply, change happens all the time in life. The NCAA championship game from 1979 (which is within my living memory) is all the proof anyone needs that change is inevitable, in sports and in life itself.

To those who would bemoan the loss of something in college athletics, I would invite them to consider that the athletes on the floor in the basketball tournament, and on the field during the bowl games and in the regular season, are generating millions of dollars for their schools, yet they aren’t allowed to share in any of it. The schools do award scholarships and provide room and board, but they keep the money and in turn make their professional coaches into wealthy men. They give the chattering heads of CBS, ESPN, and a thousand other places something to talk about and write about and take pictures of. They allow the advertisers to reach a captive audience and sell more product. And what do these athletes get in return? Not what they should, if you ask me.

There will never come a time when the NCAA, in its benevolence, decides to share the wealth with the players who do the work and assume the risks. There will never come a time when a school pays for the long-term medical bills of a player who gets hurt playing a game, while wearing their school’s colors. And there will never come a time when a player who can’t keep up with his academics and his team responsibilities is told that academics are why they are in school. Football comes first, or basketball comes first, and everyone understands this. But it’s wrong and it needs to stop.

It’s ironic that the very first Final Four, or the first time that NCAA schools competed on the same floor for a basketball championship, happened on Northwestern’s campus, all the way back in 1939. I know that that was basketball and today’s ruling applies to football, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Northwestern–my alma mater–showed the NCAA the possibilities that a championship tournament offered. And 75 years later the Final Four, and the tournament leading up to it, is a money-making juggernaut. But what Northwestern giveth in basketball, it taketh away in football and–soon enough–in basketball, too.

If making money from the toil of players who don’t get to fully share in the pie they create seems fair, I will respectfully disagree with that premise. Million-dollar coaches don’t play the games; the players do. And the false hope of a professional payday–which the overwhelming majority of college athletes will never get to see–is shameful. It’s gone on for too long, and the sooner it comes to an end, the better.

Kudos to Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team, for sowing the seeds that will one day bring about some much-needed and long-overdue changes in college sports.

Link to an old memory

WrigleyMarquee

Twenty years is a long time, no matter how you slice it. Twenty years ago I had no kids, no house, no car, and I was still in graduate school, getting a Masters degree in the hopes of becoming a teacher. So the guy who went to the baseball game described in this post bears little resemblance to the guy who wrote about it two decades later. But it’s a good story, I think, and I’m glad to still be around to tell it.

Opening day 2014 can’t get here soon enough for me.

 

Rebel, Rebel

Illinois Welcome Sign

I recently went on a long drive out west to see my in-laws at Christmas. A few pictures and stories from the trip were shared in this space, but the vast majority of it will live in brain’s memory, rather than in my computer’s memory. And that’s as it should be, I suppose.

But one moment from the long drive home stands out. We spent a night in Wichita, Kansas, and had to get back to Chicago the next day. After a drive through Kansas and into Missouri, and then across a long stretch of Iowa, we made it into Illinois. But even then, we still had to get from one end of the state to the other along Interstate 88, which has been named the Reagan expressway because it runs through Ronald Reagan’s birthplace of Dixon. But this story begins before we even made it that far.

We pulled off the highway to fill up, and I then went inside to use the restroom. My younger daughter came along too, and as I was waiting for her to come out I started to peruse the store. The first thing I noticed was one of the Calvin-type little boy stickers peeing on the word Obama. A disrespectful sticker to be selling in the president’s home state, certainly, but not terribly surprising because once you get more than five or ten miles away from Chicago, Illinois is not much different from Iowa or Missouri or even Kentucky, culturally speaking at least.

But just because I don’t like the message that a sticker sends, that doesn’t mean others can’t buy or sell it as they want to. This is America, after all, and the freedom to disrespect those in power, whoever they are, comes with the territory. I have no problems there.

But another sticker that I saw in the store had a much different effect on me. It carried the words “Kiss my rebel ass” wrapped around a confederate flag. That’s where where my tolerance ends, because the Confederacy killed off more Americans than the British, the Nazis, the Soviets, and Al-Queda ever will.

Why would anyone buy a symbol of disunion, sedition, and human bondage to attach to a car? Especially in Illinois, which never was a part of the Confederacy to begin with and–even more importantly–was home to the man who put the Confederacy out of business. Anyone who traffics in the Confederate flag in Illinois–even the western edges of it–only reveals their ignorance of the past.

But maybe that’s where the rebel part of this comes in. The bravado of the “kiss my ass” part of the sticker is designed to mask–or perhaps even to amplify–the ignorance of someone who would buy and display such a sticker. The Confederacy may have been able to run a weak president to the ground, but Abraham Lincoln proved to be their downfall. He kept the nation together, somehow, through the Civil War. And Reagan expressway or no Reagan expressway, and sitting president from Illinois or not, this is–and always will be–known as the Land of Lincoln. And hailing from such a place makes me exceedingly proud.

I wanted those stickers to be hidden from view somehow, so I turned them around and put them back in place on the rack. It was a small protest against an idea and a cause that was as un-American as anything ever has been. I’m sure it has been recognized by the gas station by now, and the stickers have since been put back into the proper position for some fool to consider buying one. But the rebel flag will always be an anathema to me, here in the state that did more than any other to shut the Confederacy down.

Long live the First Amendment and freedom of expression, but even longer may the memory of the terrible things that the Confederacy stood for be remembered.

The good that people can do

tornado_relief_donations_panorama

A few days ago, I read about an effort that the Chicago Cubs were making for tornado relief in Central Illinois. Rather than asking for money (although I’m sure they accepted that, too) the Cubs were gathering up supplies and then driving what they collected down to the Washington/Pekin areas where they are needed.

I grabbed a few paper goods from my basement, and dropped them off at Wrigley Field on Thursday morning. It wasn’t much, and I freely admitted that to the world. But at the same time, I felt good about doing it. Some donated more than I did, of course, but the vast majority of people gave nothing at all. Just to be included among those that gave made me feel very positive.

The thing about giving, like anything else, is that it’s completely voluntary. Some can give, but most can’t or don’t, for whatever reason. Inertia is probably the main culprit. I know that’s typically the case for me and disaster relief situations. I feel bad for people affected by the storms, but when it comes to doing anything more than that, I had never really have donated anything before. But the proximity of the tornadoes last Sunday to the Chicago area finally compelled me to do something. Illinois is my home, and damage done here means more to me than it would any place else.

I donated some paper goods, and challenged others to do the same. Many people did exactly that, as the above picture shows. Whatever I donated is somewhere in that shot, and by now it has all been delivered to those in need. Hats off to all of us who kicked in and gave something, no matter what it was.

Today was a colder than usual day here in Chicago, and in the areas that were affected by the storms, too. Clearing the damage that nature caused is going to take a long time, and the short, cold days will make the process that much more difficult. The calendar will say it’s the holiday season in parts of central Illinois, but it won’t look very much like Christmas this year.

People have stepped up to help, and that’s inspiring on so many levels. But the need will linger for some time, and I’ve read that relief donations usually dwindle over time. I hope that doesn’t happen here, because there’s plenty of short, cold days ahead.

All things Gettysburg

gettysburg

I started writing this blog two and a half years ago, and I’ve mentioned the Gettysburg Address thirteen times before today. Here’s a link to all of the previous references.

I love Abraham Lincoln, and I love the Gettysburg Address. I’m not apologetic about it, either. Slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in this country that I call home, and it took all of Lincoln’s genius to bring it to an end.

We should all revere Lincoln for what he did, and to the extent that present-oriented American culture ever looks towards its past, I think we do. I honor us all for not consigning Lincoln to the scrap heap of history, where you can find every president who followed him up until Teddy Roosevelt.

Today I plan to visit at least one of the various Lincoln statues in Chicago (there are six that I know of) and record myself reciting the Gettysburg Address for learntheaddress.org. When that happens, I’ll be sure to share it here, as well.

 

Driving in to Sangamon County

image

Last October, one of my brothers got married in my hometown of Springfield, Illinois. I spent the first 18 years of my life there, only rarely getting to see anything outside of it. So when the time to go away to college came, I left and never looked back. I suppose that’s human nature, in some sense.

I go back to Springfield once or twice a year to visit my parents, who still live there. And both of my brothers live there too, so my tie with Springfield will always be with me. And it’s not a bad place, either. That’s not why I left it, all those years ago. It’s just that I couldn’t stay there anymore. Call it wanderlust or whatever else you want to.

Driving down Interstate 55 toward Springfield on a Friday afternoon last fall was something like a homecoming for me. I was only going to be there for one night, but it would be a look into where I came from. My children were in school that day, and my wife was at work, so it was just me, returning to what is, for better or for worse, my hometown.

And to pick up on the Springsteen vibe, I had a CD of Born in the USA with me. That was the music I listened to, more than any other, in the last full year I lived in Springfield. I didn’t have an adult understanding to the lyrics back then, as I like to think that I do now, but man, did I love those songs. They were anthemic and loud and everything that the 17-year-old me wanted. And they remind the 45-year-old me of who I once was, too.

So as I was listening to the music from my teenage days, while driving back to the world as I knew it in 1985 and 1986, I felt like I was returning to the womb, in some sense. And when the time came to pass over the Sangamon county line–where Springfield itself is located– I put on Bruce’s “Darlington County” and improvised the first line of the song: Driving into Sangamon County… and I also took the picture shown above. I wanted to get the green-and-white “Sangamon County” sign, but I missed and got corn silos instead. That’s how life works, sometimes.

As I said, I wasn’t there for very long. The marriage ceremony and the reception afterward were nice, and I enjoyed Springfield, even if most of the things I remember about it are long gone. I can’t complain that the town I turned away from in the 1980s was not just as I remembered it in 2013. Time marches on, and things change along the way.

I drove back to Chicago the next day, through a raging storm, with the realization that life is not static. The changes that inevitably occur can be good ones, or bad ones, but that’s how it will always be. It’s a ride that we should all enjoy, for as long as we’re lucky enough to be on it.  Sha la la, sha la la la la….

Towering over Lincoln

rlh

Last weekend, I was at the Sangamon County courthouse in Springfield, Illinois. I was originally directed to the sixth floor, and when I got off the elevator I was greeted by a large bust of Abraham Lincoln, who never practiced in that courthouse, but who was a pretty successful Springfield lawyer.

I posed for a picture next to the Lincoln bust, and leaving aside the cartoonish look on my face, what strikes me is the way that I seem to tower over Lincoln. When Lincoln walked the earth, he towered over practically everyone, being that he was six feet, four inches tall. He would have towered over me, too, or at least had a couple of inches on me.

But whenever we see Lincoln statues today, or the Lincoln monument in DC of the face on Mount Rushmore, we aren’t able to tower over Lincoln. He towers over us, in both a physical and a metaphorical sense. And that’s as it should be, really.

So when I sidled up to the Lincoln bust in the courthouse the other day, I had a chance to tower over Lincoln instead. I wish I looked a little bit more dignified, and less like I was on the happy pills, but that’s how it is. I still like the picture, because it reminds me of how prevalent Lincoln is in our society. I can’t imagine that any other president merits a bust in a courthouse, anywhere.

As a society, we revere Lincoln, and deservedly so. He ended our greatest national wrong, and by remembering him as we do we perpetually honor his act, and commemorate the price that he paid for doing so. You can’t tell from this picture, but I’m proud to associate myself with Lincoln, in any way, shape, or form that I can.

Only in Springfield

2013-08-03_15-51-36_5

Last weekend, my Chicago family (wife and two daughters) and I drove to Springfield to visit my family there (parents, two brothers, sister, and two nephews). It was a great day, and I couldn’t have been any happier with how everything went. And I even stumbled upon a Lincoln story, entirely by accident. But those make for the best stories, don’t they?

My parents decided, correctly, that everyone could go for some pizza. They called up the nearest pizza chain restaurant on North Grand Avenue, and I volunteered to go and pick it up. So with my youngest brother and my older daughter in tow, I headed out to gather up the food.

The pizza place was just a few minutes away, and I was able to take a shortcut through Oak Ridge cemetery, which is best known for being the site of Lincoln’s Tomb. I drove past the tomb and explained to my daughter the custom of rubbing Lincoln’s nose for good luck. I wanted to go and do it for myself, but parking was a bit too scarce, and I knew better than to dally for too long. And I was a bit hungry, too, so it will have to wait for another day.

We left the cemetery, and the pizza place was literally at the end of the block. We pulled in a few minutes earlier than the agreed-upon time, and the pizzas were still in the oven. It was at this point that I noticed a random Lincoln quote displayed on the other side of the street. My brother agreed to continue the pizza vigil, as I crossed the street for a better look at the quote.

It was a fragment of a sentence from Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, which he delivered in Springfield in 1858. With the benefit of hindsight, his words proved to be nothing less than prophetic, as the states did indeed become all one thing, when slavery was abolished. It took years of warfare, and thousands upon thousands upon thousands of deaths, but it did play out just as Lincoln said it would.

I took a picture of the quote and ducked back across the street, just in time to help my brother get the pizzas out to the car. On the return trip, I asked myself what Lincoln would have thought of pizza, since he never tasted it for himself. I then wondered if he would have taken any satisfaction from knowing that his words were proven true in the end. As I drove past the tomb, on my way back to my parents’ house, I decided that some things would just have to remain a mystery.

Illinois catches up, a little bit

IL-medical-marijuana-640x259

Illinois is the only state that I’ve ever lived in, and I can trace my family’s history in the state back for not quite 200 years. Yesterday, the state that I call home became the 20th state to allow for the use of medical marijuana. I’m glad that help can now be legally obtained by many people who need it, and were probably already using it, anyway.

I don’t have a problem with adults who want to light up, medicinally or otherwise. I’m not convinced that it will lead directly to heroin and other drugs, as some opponents claim it does. And alcohol already takes such a terrible toll on our society that marijuana can’t possibly be any worse. Alcohol seems to fuel our society in some sense, and nobody ever seems to question this. But for anyone who goes out and gets blitzed, or who abuses prescription drugs, to then oppose someone else who wants to cultivate a different type of buzz seems hypocritical to me. To each his own, and if rolling up a fat joint happens to be your own, then more power to you.

Two states have already legalized marijuana for recreational use, and I don’t know whether Illinois will do so in my lifetime. Would I think about smoking it if they did? Probably, but the truth is that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it must be indulged in. Alcohol is legal, but my two-plus years of sobriety are among the best ones that I’ve ever had. I feel great, and I’m setting an example for my kids not to use it, either. And so can it be with pot, too.

Marijuana has been used for decades–even centuries–to help people cope with various pains and medical issues. There’s no reason to criminalize this, and I’m glad that a less-progressive-than-I-would-hope-for Illinois has finally recognized the value of doing so.

Gettysburg and Lovejoy

Gettysburg

There’s an ad campaign for Walgreens pharmacy on the radio that goes something like “at the corner of happy and healthy.” But if that were really the case, they wouldn’t sell cigarettes behind the counter the way that they do. It makes smokers happy, I’m sure, but it’s nowhere near healthy, either.

I mention this because the nation is now celebrating the 150th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg. The importance of the battle in breaking the Confederate army and their hope of winning the war is well-known. Anyplace with a “Gettysburg” anything–be it a street, or a park, or anything else, is bound to be found in the union states, rather than in the old Confederacy. And that’s as it should be, I suppose.

So the reason why Gettysburg Street is located on the Northwest side of Chicago, instead of in Charleston, South Carolina or anyplace else in the Southern states is easy to understand. But Chicago, whether intentionally or not, ups the ante in its Northern/Union street naming by having a “Lovejoy” Street which intersects with Gettysburg Street.

There were two notable Lovejoys that the street could be named after. Elijah Lovejoy was an abolitionist editor of the Alton Observer, a newspaper that published Abolitionist ideas in an area of Southern Illinois that was sympathetic to slavery. Lovejoy was killed by a pro-slavery mob in 1837, defending the printing press that he used to strike out against slavery. His brother, Owen Lovejoy, witnessed the murder, and he too became committed to the Abolitionist cause. He was a conductor on the Underground railroad, and he helped to recruit Abraham Lincoln into the Republican party. He’s certainly worthy of having his name attached to a street, but only in places where Confederate sympathizers are nowhere in sight.

So as the Gettysburg anniversary celebration continues this week, let’s also remember Lovejoy and his fellow agitators who forced an issue that, in hindsight, needed all the forcing it could get. The intersection of Gettysburg and Lovejoy–metaphorically– is a place where slavery and the Confederate cause went to die a bloody death. But die it did, and America is so much better for it.

My lifelong Lincoln tour continues

image

Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln comes to you through osmosis. Lincoln’s Home, Lincoln’s Tomb, the Old State Capitol where the “House Divided” speech was delivered, it’s all right there. And I’ve been to them all. And it’s expanded into other Lincoln sites outside of Springfield: The Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theatre in DC, the birthplace and childhood home sites in Kentucky, the bed that he died on in Chicago, various statues and art pieces that I’ve written about here, and others I can’t think of at the moment. If it’s Lincoln-related, I’m interested in it.

So the chance to see the Mary Todd house in Lexington, Kentucky yesterday was something I could not pass up. It intrigued me because Lincoln would have come face to face with slavery within the Todd household. I wonder how it went down when that happened. It was probably an interesting time, I would imagine.

I took it all in, made a couple of suggestions based on things I had heard or read about Lincoln, and bought a Lincoln pencil sharpener in the ever-present gift shop at the end of the tour. I even signed the credit card receipt with Lincoln as my middle name, which I had never done before. It was an interesting experience, and it was something I’ll likely never do again. The Lincoln bucket list continues to shrink.

A pause for inspiration

image

I love living in Chicago for many reasons, and the ability to park for a few minutes and gaze upon a Lincoln statue is one of them. This one is the closest to my house, about five minutes away. It’s called Young Lincoln, and it has a pensive quality that I like a lot. The sky and the clouds behind it also deserve to be seen.

As I was running around town today, the chance to pause for a few moments and reflect on Lincoln and his meaning to this country was quite meaningful. May we all have similar moments of reflection today, wherever and whenever they might present themselves.

Doin’ the time warp

wpid-wp-1361643500108.jpg NG1968

Thanks to a book exchange at a recycling center here in Chicago, I was able to procure a National Geographic for the month that I was born. I haven’t read any of it yet, but the ads in the front and the back have already offered me a window into a world that no longer exists.

I was born into a world of traveler’s checks and beehive hairdos and Pan Am Airlines. A world where people clipped things out and mailed them in to request more information about things. A world where Illinois billed itself as “The Tall State” and dozens of military academies took out ads in the Classified section.

It seems strange and somewhat fascinating to me, and I’m looking forward to spending a few minutes or hours browsing through the world I was born into. Everyone should have an opportunity such as this, if only to appreciate how much things have changed during their lifetimes.

I can’t promise anything, but someone reading this who’s interested, please send me your birth month in the comments and I’ll see what I can find as far as the month you were born. And I’ll be sure to delete your message before it ever gets published here. That’s the power of moderated comments. Who knows, it might prove an interesting experience. And I’m always up for having one of those.

Lincoln 101

Although he died a century before I was born, Abraham Lincoln has been a big part of my life, and I’ve written about him on many occasions before. On the occasion of Presidents Day, I humbly offer the following:

Lincoln

For an explanation of how Lincoln came to be my middle name, click here.

lincolns-hat

For a time that I once dressed as Lincoln for a costume party. click here.

DSCF5825

For a review of Lincoln statues in Chicago, click here and here and here.

GraceFor Lincoln statues in other places, click here.

Lincoln posterFor random Lincoln sightings, click here and here and here.

There are many more pieces like that on this site, but these are just a few to get things started. Happy Presidents Day to everyone.

The Cats and the Cubs

CatsandCubs

I’ve been a Cubs fan since the mid 1970s, and graduated from Northwestern at the dawn of the 1990s. I  would go so far as to say that my interest in sports begins and ends with those two teams. So today’s announcement that Northwestern athletics will play some of their home games in football, baseball, lacrosse, and who knows what else in Wrigley Field during the coming few years is great news for me.

The Cubs and Northwestern are both breaking new ground here, with a partnership that hasn’t been tried by anyone else before. They’re each blazing a trail, and if it succeeds–make that when it succeeds–others will be looking to do the same thing. It’s an exciting time to have allegiances on both sides of this arrangement. May it lead to bigger and better things all the way around.

Springfield as Mecca

1909 postcard

Something I’ve never considered before is the Muslim practice of facing toward Mecca to pray. I know it’s their faith, and far be it from me to wander into an area I don’t have any knowledge about. But five times a day is enough to make the point that Mecca is very important for Muslims.

I say this because I recently received an inquiry from a reader of this blog about the Gettysburg Address tablet that is on the wall of my younger daughter’s school. He sent me some fascinating materials about the observance of the Lincoln centennial in 1909, of which the Gettysburg tablets were a part. There were roughly 450 of them installed, in every public and parochial school in Chicago at the time. I was told that four of these are known to still exist, which sounds about right after 103 years have gone by. It’s a fascinating thing to know this was ever done in the first place.

So where does the Mecca part come in? I had read, some time ago, that school children were told, on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, to face toward Springfield and recite something or do something or I can’t remember exactly what it was. But this was a one-time event, on a special day, and it struck me as a strange thing to do.

I understand the desire to pay tribute to Lincoln, and few are more enthusiastic about him than I am, but this act of reverence seemed out of place in this country. Part of me hopes that I’m imagining this, or that I misunderstood what was in the book I was reading. But I’m also trusting my memory enough to report that this did happen, or at least was supposed to happen, on February 12, 1909.

Many thanks to the reader who provided all of the interesting Lincoln materials, including the postcard above. They have certainly given me food for thought, as all things Lincoln generally do.

Rooting for the enemy

cheesehead2yr

I live in Chicago, but don’t care enough about the NFL to consider myself a Bears fan. The Bears win, the Bears lose, and it’s all pretty much the same to me. But I’m certainly in the minority in these parts. Many people are emotionally invested in the Bears, and for the next three hours they will do something that will be exceedingly uncomfortable: root for Green Bay.

Yes, the Packers. The team from that little town up north, that is by far the smallest town in the NFL. Never mind that it’s a Wisconsin team as much as anything else. Illinois generally looks down on its neighbor to the north, and the ill will is returned in kind (like we don’t know what a FIB is). This mutual contempt for each other is the fuel that makes the oldest rivalry in the NFL go. And if Bears fans want to extend their season into next weekend, they have no other choice. It’s a long enough offeason already, so why add another week to it?

Go put on something in the lemon-lime colors that the Packers wear, or practice doing that belt thing that Aaron Rogers does. Embrace it, Bears fans, and just hope that it’s successful in the end. Because you’ll hate yourselves for doing it if the Packers lose.