Inside the Ricketts Square


My daughter, who’s in 8th grade in a Chicago public school, took biology a year ago. She was exposed to genetics and the Punnett Square, which brought back lots of old memories, and not necessarily fond ones, as I tried once again to understand alleles and dominant and recessive traits.

However, I apparently remember enough of genetics to have an analogy for what lies ahead in November of this year. It’s either going to be an amazing month, a terrible month, or something in between. And the Punnett Square helps to explain why.

This morning I came across an interesting story about the Ricketts family, and particularly Todd Ricketts. The family fortune comes from Joe Ricketts, who founded Ameritrade and has done very well as a result.

The family used their fortunes to buy the Chicago Cubs, and have been pouring money into the renovation of Wrigley Field, and the acquisition and destruction of many properties surrounding the ballpark on Clark and Addison streets. By the time they get finished, Wrigley will be the anchor for a high-end district the likes of which I’m sure Chicago hasn’t seen before. And none of this is a bad thing, if it keeps Wrigley Field and the Cubs in Chicago where they’ve always been.

But now, the family’s competing interest in politics will be considered. According to the story I saw, Todd Ricketts is offering to be the act as a cash collector for the Donald Trump campaign, through a group that is able to collect large sums of money without having to disclose who their donors are. Think of it as Trumpin’ on the downlow. When somebody wants to give Trump lots of cash without having to admit it to anyone else, Todd Ricketts is apparently their guy.

So November is going to bring two resolutions, in quick succession. The Cubs are hopefully going to finally go all the way and win the World Series, which I’ve been waiting for over three decades by now. When it finally happens, life won’t ever be quite the same for me again. And I very much want that to happen. We’ll know by November 2 if that’s the case.

And then just a few days later–November 8, to be exact–we’ll find out if Donald Trump is going to be president or not. That’s something I definitely don’t want to happen, as the world will disappear in flames and smoke if Trump wins. I get terrified enough just typing those words out on the computer.

So I’m thinking of November as a Punnett Square-type month, having to do with the outcomes of the Ricketts family and their twin interests in baseball and electoral politics. The Ricketts Square, as I’m calling it, has to do with the Cubs being dominant and winning (referred to on the square as C) or being recessive and losing (as signified by c). And yes, everything short of a World Series title will be considered as c to me, and many other Cubs fans, as well.

Since the Ricketts family is collecting money for Donald Trump, they also have an interest in whether he is dominant and wins (represented by a T) or is recessive and loses (as indicated as t). So there are four possible outcomes, which will be discussed below.

The Ricketts-preferred outcome is for both the Cubs and Trump to win, as represented by CT on the square. For somebody like me, that would result in a week’s euphoria over the Cubs, followed by the most profound “Oh Shit!” moment I can imagine.

The preferred outcome in my world is Cubs winning and Trump losing, represented by Ct on the square. The baseball celebrations of early November would then carry on into infinity, at least for me.

But it’s the other two results that could be most interesting. A Cubs loss, followed by a Trump loss, is represented as ct on the square. And as devastating as a Cubs loss could be, the following week would bring some good news, at least. It probably wouldn’t be enough to lift the clouds of disappointment, but as a human living on planet earth, I would feel at least a little bit better.

The final possibility is almost too gruesome to imagine: The Cubs fall short in the postseason, but a split is salvaged when Trump wins the White House a week later. This is shown as cT on the square, and would be a consolation prize for the Ricketts family, but a devastating development for the world that we all live in.  May this outcome never come to pass.

Anyone who has read this far and wants to have an issue with this will say “What about Laura Ricketts? Doesn’t she raise money for the Democrats?” and I will acknowledge this is true. Whether she raises any secret money from undisclosed donors is something I don’t know, but I’m willing to suggest there is more Republican sentiment within the family than not, and the two sides do not cancel each other out.

So October will be the prelude, and early November will bring the resolution. We’ll have to see how it goes, and perhaps by then the actual Punnett Square will make its way into my daughter’s vocabulary. The only thing there is to do now is wait and hope, while searching for a glimpse of that elusive red ivy at Wrigley Field.


No time for Trump

I am confident that Donald Trump understands the concept of property very well. When you own something, you can use it as you want, and the law prevents anyone else from doing the same.

Songs, books, drawings, or any other forms of creative work are also property, and they belong to the person or people who created them. There are no fences around them, and no paid security standing by to protect them, either. But their creators alone get to decide when they can be used, and when they cannot.

Brian May doesn’t want Donald Trump to use any of Queen’s music for his political purposes. Apparently that is a band policy, for all political candidates. But when  Donald Trump disregards the wishes of the music’s creators, he disrespects their right to decide how their music is to be used. I expect nothing less from him, of course, but the artists have to win in this case.

This isn’t about money, and maybe that’s why Trump is having such a hard time with it. Instead it’s about telling him no, which Trump simply can’t abide. Nobody can tell him no, at least in his mind, and that’s why he continues to use their music at his pleasure.

How could such a man ever be entrusted with the leadership of this nation? The obvious answer is that he can’t.

RIP, Freddie Mercury, and stay strong, Brian May and the other members of Queen. You are in the right on this.

Shut down Volkswagen


My parents had a light blue Volkswagen Beetle like the one pictured above when I was a kid, and I called it a “Vopiad” because I couldn’t say “Volkswagen.” It’s a happy memory for me.

But those warm fuzzys have been abolished forever by the way Volkswagen has behaved since 2009. They installed software that was specifically designed to beat emissions testing into many of their models, but which then shut off when the car was not being tested. Their cars thus spit many times the allowable limits of pollutants into the air, which I and everyone else on the planet had to breathe.

Volkswagen is paying for their deception, as they should. But the settlement funding seems to be directed to the people who bought these cars in the first place. Those of us who breathed in foul air over these past few years apparently won’t see a dime in damages.

I frankly don’t want any money from Volkswagen, but I do want them to pay. And the only fitting penalty I can imagine is to have them shut down for good, permanently unable to soil our environment with their products ever again.

This won’t happen, of course, but it should. There’s nothing Volkswagen can do, and no check they could ever write, that will undo the environmental damage they’ve caused through their subterfuge. May the people who dreamed this scheme up–and who knew and did nothing about it through the years–be criminally punished for what they have done. And may the name “Volkswagen” forever be synonymous with irreversible environmental damage. They’ve certainly earned it.

Five Years and Counting


I wanted to start a blog for a long time–probably for at least a year–before I actually did it. But I put off doing it, because I thought there was some special quality I was lacking. Others who “blogged” (the word was still new and unusual back then) had it, whatever it was, and I simply did not.

That type of self-doubt has always held me back in life. Others are better than me, and I’m not good enough, so why bother? Why take a risk, if it’s just going to end up revealing all of my flaws?

So for all of 2010 and a good part of 2011 I kept things to myself, just as I had been doing all my life. Until one day I couldn’t do it anymore. I had a story to tell, so I typed it out–that part has always come easy to me–and I wondered what to do with it. And that was the point when I remembered something Jimi Hendrix once said: “My own thing is in my head. I hear sounds, and if I don’t get them together, nobody else will.”  So I took the leap and stated writing a blog, five years ago today.

I once thought, if I kept up with the same frenetic writing pace that I had for the first two years I did this, that I’d be upwards of a million words on this blog after five years. A million is a nice big number, and I’d like to say I wrote a million words for free online. But as it so often happens in life, that old crazy dream kinda came and went.

For one thing, I started sending my writings to other websites. I always enjoy seeing my words in print or online, so sending out hundreds of pieces to someone else seemed like the natural thing to do. And I also found that sleep is nice, too. I went from 700-1000 words per post down to 200-300 words.  So a million words, at least on this blog, feels like a long shot anymore. I stopped counting how many words are here some time ago, anyway.

But I continue having fun with this. I consider this blog as a digital legacy, for people I love and for people I’ll never meet, in equal measure. If my relatives going back a few generations had something like this available to them, I’d be happy if they put some of their thoughts and fears, their hopes and memories down where I could learn more about them. But this blogging thing is still too new for anything like that.  I can write these things down, and so I do. And bravo and good day to anyone who happens upon them, too.

Five years of sharing my thoughts and ideas with the world feels like a lot. But at the same time, it’s now been so long I don’t know why I didn’t start earlier. When it comes to writing a blog–like so many other things–there ain’t nothing to it, but to do it.

Here’s to keeping at this for as long as I’m able…..

Enough is enough


Opioids are taking a terrible toll on this country, and yet they’re perfectly legal. The Pharma companies that manufacture them are profiting from addiction and death. I’m grateful I don’t know anyone who has had an addiction to these things, but not everyone has been so fortunate.

Can we now have an honest discussion of legalizing marijuana everywhere for medical use, at the very least? I’d rather have Prince–or anybody else–walking around with a bong in his hand, treating his pain in a way that wouldn’t get him addicted to anything.

I’m in favor of legalizing it for recreational use, too, because people are going to smoke whether it’s legal or not. Alcohol takes an enormous social toll, but experience has shown that regulating people’s vices is a fool’s errand.

Sacrificing our brothers, sisters, friends, family members and music idols to the opioid makers doesn’t make sense anymore, if it ever did in the first place.

Note: This is cross-posted from something I wrote on Facebook this morning, commenting on a Washington Post story about Prince’s scheduled meeting with an opioid specialist the day after he was found dead. 

UPDATE: Apparently this approach worked for Jim McMahon. Why not allow others to self-medicate like this? I can’t think of a good reason not to.

A Freudian Slip


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


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.

Powerball and the flip of a coin


One time, just for fun, I found out what the actual odds of winning the Powerball are. Then I compared it to the real-world action of flipping a coin.

If you took a quarter and flipped heads (or tails, but I’m saying heads because it’s my example), you’d have to then flip heads another 25 times in a row, and you’d still be a flip away from getting there. My numbers may be off by a flip or two, but try flipping even seven or eight in a row and you’ll see how laughably improbable it is. Or, if you have more quarters than you do patience, throw a handful up in the air at once and see how they all come up. If the number is more than about three, they’ll have different results. No $1.5 billion  payout for you!

Yet some people (a lot of them, apparently) believe that the 27-straight-heads-flipper will be them. That’s some very wishful thinking, indeed.

Sending my best to Dominica


The first time I ever left the boundaries of the United States was for my honeymoon in August of 1992. My new wife and I took a Caribbean cruise, leaving from San Juan and going through the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Maarten, Barbados, Dominica, and Martinique. The sunshine and natural beauty of the Caribbean overwhelmed me, and so too did the crushing poverty that I saw. It was my first encounter with the meaning of the term “third world.”

Tourist dollars like ours seemed to be what kept these places afloat, if floating can accurately describe what was going on. The cruise ships bring the tourists, and the locals do what they can to separate the tourists from their money. Giving tours is a big moneymaker, for sure, and they may be the thing that I remember most about these islands. Our tour of Dominica may have been the one I remember the most.

The infrastructure, such as it was, of the islands seemed to decline as the cruise progressed. From Charlotte Amalie and the duty-free shopping it offered on St. Thomas, and the FU money of those who could afford to live or vacation on St. John, there was a precipitous decline when we got to Barbados, and even more so when we arrived in Dominica. But it was also the most pristine of the islands we had seen, and the explanation of how a rainforest worked was facinating, at least to me.

By the time we arrived at a waterfall on Dominica, and bought a piece of fruit from a local vendor, I had decided that the beauty and the poverty of Dominica were both beyond what I was ready for. I was grateful to have a cruise ship waiting for me, to take me onto the next island and, ultimately, away from the Caribbean altogether. But the tour guides and the fruit vendors weren’t so lucky. They had to stay on Dominica and wait for the next cruise ship to arrive, to repeat the same process all over again.

The devastation of Tropical Storm Erika on Dominica makes me sad today. The cruise ships that take their patrons to the shores of Dominca could surprise me and come up with some money or supplies to help the people of the island in their moment of need, but it would be far easier to look for other places to dock their boats, or simply bypass the island altogether. Who wants to see destruction and human misery on their vacation?

Places like Florida, which is next in the path of this storm, will also feel an impact, possibly even a strong one, but in the end they will rebuild. Insurance money and other resources will flow to Florida in a way that they never will to Dominica and the rest of the Caribbean. The people on that island–and the Caribbean as a whole–are truly on their own. I wish them the best.

On Subway and the Failings of Fogle


Unlike many people, I can remember Subway restaurants in the pre-Jared Fogle days. I first visited a Subway shop in the summer of 1988 in Evanston, Illinois, and it seemed like a revolution in fast food to me. In some ways, that’s exactly what it was.

You mean I can pick my own type of bread? and meat? Veggies, too? And sauce on the top of it all? Wow! That’s exactly what being in a Subway felt like back then.

I imagine it felt like that for Jared Fogle, too. He found that he liked the sandwiches, and he used them–and a lot of walking–to tell a compelling story about the inner determination that we all have, if we can only unlock it and harness it effectively. Those huge jeans that he never tired of holding up were his ticket–and Subway’s–to the explosive growth that has occurred over the past two decades.

Subway now has more than 44,000 restaurants all over the world. It’s safe to say that more than half of these only existed in the Jared Fogle days of the franchise. He was the face of the franchise, and quite literally its embodiment, too. Eat Subway and you, too, can get to a slimmer body size. And who doesn’t want that?

Jared is the opposite of Ronald McDonald, because he is a real-life person. His claim to fame was that he had eaten Subway and lost weight. That’s all. Athletes sometimes had endorsement deals with Subway–Apollo Ohno comes to mind on that front–but Jared didn’t have anything other than his backstory to offer. But that was enough, it seemed. Subway was Jared and Jared was Subway. And they both sold us all a lot of sandwiches as a result.

But real life people are human, after all. And when the freaky side of Jared Fogle was revealed, and then confirmed by his guilty plea to possession of child pornography, it created a major problem–perhaps even an existential one–for Subway and its owners, Doctor’s Associates. Can their brand, which depended on Jared’s smiling visage and uplifting personal tale, survive the things that Jared did on his own time? Should it survive?

Doctor’s Associates is a privately-held company headquartered in Milford, Connecticut. As a result, there’s been no precipitous crash in the company’s stock price, as there would be if this happened to McDonalds or Subway. But there’s also no spreading of the pain around between millions of individual and institutional stockholders, either. The pain is being felt by the people who own those 44,000 franchises around the world, and pay Subway for the right to use their name and sell their products.

The decline in sales at these locations is going to be very real. How could it be otherwise, when their corporate image is going to prison for at least five years? The food won’t taste any different today than it did last year or ten years ago, but everyone who steps through the door will have to ask themselves if they want to continue giving their money to a business that was at least partially created by a pedophile.

Subway has had a few weeks’ warning to scrub any and all images of Jared from their stores, and I’m sure they have done exactly that. But the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps this was all a misunderstanding of some sort, is gone, as of today. He did many terrible things, and his Subway-generated wealth will be used partially to repay his victims, and partially to pay lawyers who were able to work out a better plea deal than the average Subway customer could get in a similar situation. So Subway benefited Jared, one final time. But he now leaves an awful lot of franchise owners holding the bag, and facing a very uncertain future.

Jared will become forgotten, or the answer to trivia questions, or the target (because saying butt just felt wrong) of many cruel jokes. He brought all of that on himself, and I will shed no tears for him. But he will also serve as an object lesson for any company that expects to ride a spokesperson of any kind to bigger and better things. When you tie your wagon to just one horse, as Subway did for twenty years with Jared Fogle, you better be very sure that it’s a good one.

My Grateful Beard has disappeared

I spent much of February 2015 growing a beard. It originally grew out of the hockey-related idea of a playoff beard.
If you keep a routine that does not allow for shaving to intrude, the thinking goes, it will somehow create a benefit for one’s team. Or at least it allows you to share the experience with others who do the same silly thing.

I called this phenomenon the Grateful Beard, since it grew out of a waiting to see if I was going to get tickets to one of the reunion/farewell shows the Grateful Dead is playing this summer in Chicago.

I’ve been to four Dead shows over the years, with the last one being almost 22 years ago now. Four shows isn’t much by some standards, but most people haven’t even been to one show, so I’m happy to be as experienced as I am. For a rock lifer like me, hearing Jerry and his band play live confers some degree of street cred that few other bands can match.

Jerry Garcia once said that the trick is not to do something better than everyone else does it, but to do something that no one else is doing. The band was singular in their time, and that shows in what will surely be a hyper-crazy demand to be a part of the three shows this summer. this is a one-time thing, and I want in.

But as I posted previously, the mail order didn’t work out, and my money order arrived in the mail a few days ago. I took one last picture of my Grateful Beard, complete with a legitimate touch of gray in it, and shaved it off yesterday morning.

Now that the Beard is no more, I understand that it–like the Dead shows this summer–was a unique and singular experience. Never again will my whiskers depend on the content of my mailbox. So even though my efforts did not lead to the miracles I had been seeking, I still had some way of marking the time along the way. It’s a small thing, but I am memorializing it here, all the same.

Here’s hoping that the telephone and Internet sale this morning leads to greater success than the mail order did. What I can say confidently is that no Beard will be grown during this process.


Friends and Family–2013

This morning, as my teenager got in some practice ice time with her skating coach, I continued on my quest to purge my personally-identifiable pictures from Facebook. I’m working backward from the present year, and I made my way through 2013 today. It was an interesting year, but they are all with the benefit of hindsight.

Again, I’ll continue this until the storage space runs out. No explanations or captions are coming anytime soon.

Friends and Family–2014

The new Facebook Terms of Service are going into effect on January 1, 2015, and every user will have to agree to them in order to continue using their service. I’m sure Facebook expects the overwhelming majority of users to blindly click “I accept” and continue on with life. Maybe it’s a character flaw, but I’m not willing to go along so easily.

What’s the hangup?

Facebook is expecting–no, they are demanding–that any image put onto their website can be used by them for whatever commercial purposes they want, without that person’s consent, and without any compensation paid whatsoever.

Part of me is amused that Facebook thinks my image could ever be helpful selling anything to anyone. But part of me is offended that my family’s image could be used for these purposes. My grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my wife, and my children could all be put into the financial service of a multi-billion dollar business enterprise, simply because I once wanted my handful of friends to see them in a picture. My friends, colleagues, classmates, and everyone I’ve ever known, practically, could be pressed into service without their knowledge or consent.

And me, well, I’ve been in lots of photos in my life. Some of those have ended up on Facebook, on the pages of people who who go along with Facebook’s new demands. I’ll be sent into Facebook’s service, where I would prefer not to be, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it, either.

I actually don’t much care about my image, but I hate that Facebook wants to monetize millions–if not billions–of people’s images for their financial gain. Yes, Facebook is free, in the sense that it costs no money to sign up or to keep an account in your name. But when the price becomes pimping out yourself and all your friends, that’s a bit too much to pay.

So here are the images of my friends and family from my 2014 posts on Facebook. They’ve all been deleted from that site, and are being given asylum on a platform where I still think I have some control. Hope I’m not wrong about that.

How far I will take this remains to be seen. I joined Facebook in 2009, so there must be thousands of pictures that will need transferring. And I have lots of pictures from traveling, and local images I found interesting, that I don’t know if I want Facebook to control come January 1. I’d like to just take my images and walk away from Facebook altogether, but that’s a decision I don’t have to make just yet. We’ll see how that goes.

So here are the pictures. Captions and explanations won’t be forthcoming for a while, if ever.

Paying the price

A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

The decision by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri to not indict officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown last summer ripped the scab off a wound that hadn’t healed up yet. It’s a wound that can never heal, not so long as young men can be murdered in a public place, in broad daylight, and left to decompose in full public view for more than four hours. That should never happen in a respectful, civilized society.

In the interregnum between the killing of Michael Brown, and the prosecutor’s decision that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for his actions, there wasn’t much in the way of constructive dialogue about the situation that exists between black and white in this country. The gulf between the races feels wider than I’ve ever known it in my lifetime. And the increased sense of drifting apart concerns me even more.

For every Michel Brown, and Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, there are many more names that aren’t reported in the media. And each and every time it happens, the names change but the equation never does: Black man+white man+physical altercation=death. And the white man is then believed in court, while the black man has no chance to tell his side of the story. Why? Because dead men make terrible witnesses.

It felt as if the prosecutor in this case couldn’t stomach the idea of putting a white officer on trial, for the act of shooting an unarmed black kid. He was big, he was high, he was a thief, and he got what was coming to him. A hundred witnesses, each one telling exactly the same story, wouldn’t have made a difference to him. In his mind, Darren Wilson was allowed to play the role of judge, jury, and executioner. The platitudes that he spouted off while reading his statement to the media don’t change this inalterable fact: Michel Brown is still dead, and Darren Wilson now walks free.

The shooting and its aftermath have already exacted a heavy toll on the financial resources of Ferguson, St. Louis County, and the state of Missouri. Insurance monies will be paid out to the businesses that were destroyed, and that won’t be cheap, either. But all of those things–whatever their final costs end up being–can be tabulated. Damaged or destroyed property can always be repaired or replaced, provided that there is the money and the will to have it done. Parts of Ferguson probably resemble a war zone right now, and they will continue to for a long time to come.

But the real price of the shooting and its aftermath can’t be measured in terms of money. Rather, it is the value of Michael Brown’s life that has been lost, and there’s no way to know exactly what that would be. Maybe he would have done good things with his life, and maybe he wouldn’t. We’ll never get the chance to find out.

But even more impossible to measure–and ultimately repair–is the damage that has been done to people’s faith in the judicial system. If people, whether black, white, brown, or any other hue don’t trust that the system works for them, there’s nothing that will bring that back. So they rage against everything and everything that they can. CNN brought proof of this into our living rooms all night long.

I’ve heard and read the term “exoneration” applied to Darren Wilson, but I don’t think it applies here. Yes, he has cleared a legal hurdle in front of him, thanks to a sympathetic prosecutor.  But the blood of Michael Brown will be on his hands for as long as he walks the earth, though not in a literal sense.

For all the damage he has done, both to Michael Brown personally and to everyone who has been disillusioned by the grand jury’s decision, Darren Wilson cannot possibly atone. He was allowed to walk free in a legal sense, but our society will have to pay the ultimate price for what he did that afternoon.

Like a trip through the past


If I could go back and see myself as an adolescent, I would probably find him in an arcade.

Aladdin’s Castle at White Oaks Mall is where I first caught video gaming fever, and if I had to put a date on it it would be around 1980. I eventually moved my video gaming to the Wabash Amusement Center, which was located at a bend where MacArthur turned into Wabash Avenue. I would ride my bike there several times a week, and shovel away my paper route earnings one quarter at a time.

Last night, with my wife and younger daughter away at a skating competition, and my teenager sleeping at a friend’s house, I found myself alone on a Saturday night. So I did exactly what I would have done as a 12 or 13 year-old, and I went to an arcade. And it was a lot of fun, too.

I played games that I had forgot even existed. I played Space Invaders and Defender, Zaxxon and Asteroids, Pac Man and Joust. I even played a game of pinball, although that was never really my thing. But finding the Donkey Kong machine was the peak of the experience.

Donkey Kong was always the first machine I sought out at the WAC, and the other games were what I played when someone else was on it. My high score back in those days was 204,000 and I had no illusions I would be playing at that level in 2014. In fact, the 13 year-old me would have disgusted with my play last night, but then again I’m not happy with the choices that the 13 year-old me made with our money, either. So I guess it all works out in the end.

After the last token was inserted into the coin slot, and the adolescent nostalgia bug had been thoroughly scratched, I went back to my car and drove home. Aladdin’s Castle and the Wabash Amusement Center went away a long time ago, but the kid who once frequented them still walks the earth, periodically indulging his prior obsession with a mixture of fondness and regret. But as always, he’s glad for the experience he had, and the memories they can still provide.

Thoughts from southern Indiana


There are some people–probably more than I would know how to count–who think that “government” is a bad thing. It exists solely to take their hard-earned money away and give it to those who don’t deserve it. Abolish the IRS, these people say, and the country will be much better off.

For the sake of offsetting such views, I offer the Interstate highways that connect our cities and states together. Those roads–and bridges, in some cases–didn’t just appear by accident. The government once had to design the routes, acquire the land, grade the roads, and pay the workers who put them into place. It had to also paint the lines on the roads, put up signs so people knew where they are going, and build exit ramps. And because they once went to all this trouble, all of us can travel around this country in the quickest way possible.

Governments are not perfect. Nothing designed and run by humans ever are. But to those who cling to the notion that all government is a waste of their money, I offer this advice: get into your car and drive, but avoid the roads that government funds have provided to you. That would not only make for an exceedingly short drive, but would also prove the point that you are actually getting something in return for your tax dollars.

Some food for thought as we head out for a long holiday weekend. The fall foliage is beautiful, by the way.

The year I started working


For some people, the penny is a waste of effort. It costs more to make them than they’re actually worth, so why bother with them in the first place? I can understand this line of thinking, but I respectfully disagree with it. For me, a penny is a relic from the past, and a chance to be transported back in time, if only for a moment. And so it was today, when I bent over to pick up a 1978 penny in a 7-Eleven parking lot here in Chicago.

1978 was an interesting and important year for me. That may be true of any given year, as I’m sure I made that point about other years in the past in this space. But 1978 was the year I got my first job, delivering a local paper called the Springfield Shopper to houses in my neighborhood at a penny apiece. The Shopper was a new paper, the 1970s equivalent of a start-up. Perhaps this was a reason they signed up a ten year-old to help get the word out. You do what you have to do, especially when you’re new.

I was glad to discover that the Shopper still exists. It’s still loaded with ads, trying to help people find places to spend their money. In the internet age, I’m sure that the business climate they operate in today is far different from what it was in the late 1970s. They probably don’t deliver to people’s homes anymore, either. That’s progress, isn’t it? And if nothing else, The Simpsons have borrowed their name many times through the years. That alone is something to be happy about.

My teenager recently auditioned for a musical based on Studs Terkel’s Working. The irony is that besides a few babysitting gigs, she hasn’t ever worked for anyone in her life. Her studies come first, of course, but the experience of making money through working for someone has been lost on her.

My Shopper experience lasted until I turned twelve, and then I started delivering the local newspaper instead. It was a job that I held until I turned sixteen, and got my first “real” job as a grocery bagger. I’ve done lots of things–for lots of people–in the years since then, and I’ve spent the past 36 years as a working man. And I’ll likely be working for someone until the day I die.

My two children will likely start working at some point in the future, and in the American tradition this work will probably define who they are to the rest of the world. When somebody asks “So what do you do?” they aren’t wanting to hear about the places that you travel to or the hours you spend parenting your kids or doing anything else you find interesting.

I’ve had some great jobs in my life–and some lousy ones, too–but doing something for someone else has been a constant in my life since 1978. Things really changed for me that year, in ways that I did not fully appreciate until now. That’s a lot of self-realization to be gleaned from a discarded penny.

The King no more



It was thirty years ago that I had my first beer. And now, all these years later, I wish that it hadn’t happened. While I never really needed it, there was a time in my life that I wanted it, and spent whatever I had to in order to acquire it.

It’s now been more than three years since I last drank a beer, or anything else alcoholic. A quarter of a century of enthusiastic boozing relieved me of more money than I care to think about, and harmed my liver and my health in ways that I will probably never appreciate. But there was another cost, too.

I spent decades under the delusion that alcohol made good times better, and also made bad times better, and even made uneventful times into something pleasant. It was a win-win situation, so long as you owned a brewery or a place that sold their products.

Our society favors drinking at every turn. Big money is spent on promoting the stuff, and in turn the money flows in like a beer running from a tap. As I was once fond of saying, you can’t buy beer, but you can rent it. And I rented quite a lot of it through the years.

The decision to ban alcohol in this country failed miserably, as it should have. People will drink, and trying to break this up was a fool’s errand. But the realization of what alcohol really costs–both in money and in other, less tangible terms–took decades for me, and probably never comes at all for many people.

I would never begrudge anyone the right to have a beer or two or 20. Freedom’s a great thing, after all. But whoever crumpled up the Budweiser can and threw it on the curb–just as I once did–is paying a higher price for their decision than they might realize. They might even discover some day that they can get along fine without it.

Month without McDonald’s, part 5


Once again, on the last day of a month where I did not go to a McDonald’s, I’m presenting another one of their signs as a trophy of sorts. Five months without patronizing this business feels positively great.

By paying their workers minimum wages, and thus ensuring that many of them will go on public assistance in order to survive, the Golden arches have earned all of the worker mistrust that manifested itself with protests at the corporate headquarters in suburban Chicago this past month. Good on those who put themselves on the line for this cause.

Other businesses, particularly in fast food, probably do the same thing McDonald’s does in this regard. But withholding my money from this one business is a good start to realizing that cheap food has costs we aren’t supposed to consider when a food craving sets in.

McDonald’s won’t go under because I don’t eat there anymore. I, however, get the satisfaction of knowing that they depend on sales, and my part of this equation has gone somewhere else, hopefully for good. And that’s more than I was doing a year ago about this.

A regrettable clearance sale


Losing a bookstore is an odd paradox. On the one hand, the prices are slashed so that the store’s inventory can be moved quickly. But on the other hand, the store goes away once the sale is over. And the world needs more bookstores, not less.

Such was my dilemma today when I visited Powell’s bookstore on Chicago’s North side. It’s closing in June, citing an economic climate that isn’t too kind to booksellers. I had been to Powell’s a few times through the years, and its size alone seemed to augur for a long-term presence on Lincoln Avenue. But in the end, that’s one of the factors that did them in.

I felt a sense of sadness as I wandered through the store this afternoon. I picked up four books for a total of $10, and the titles all look like they will be interesting (a Shakespeare biography, two books about Abraham Lincoln, and Jonathan Eig’s Get Capone, if anyone’s interested). I always appreciate cheap reads, and today’s visit did not disappoint. But it also came with a steep price.

Had I been more inclined to pay full price for these books a few months ago, I doubt that alone would have made a difference in the store’s fortunes. But if thousands of others had taken this same approach, then perhaps the store’s sales would have been robust enough to avoid closure. And it’s too late now, unfortunately.

Bookstores like Powell’s have been disappearing for some time now. I love bookstores and what they represent, but I fear their dwindling numbers also says something about our society. Paying full price is less desirable to readers than paying a reduced price, which in turn is less desirable than free. For booksellers and artists of every stripe, free and reduced prices are difficult business models to sustain.

I saw a sign on the wall of the store today that made me stop for a moment. It was a letter written by schoolchildren, and it included the line “Thank you for the books.” And I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. Thank you for the books, Powell’s.

Month without McDonald’s, Part 4


The minimum wage seems to be McDonald’s best friend. When the Senate killed an attempt to raise the minimum wage last week, I’m sure there were a few happy McDonald’s franchise owners and higher-ups in the corporate structure. But there were thousands of workers who lost out, and I am–and will always be–closer to the latter group than the former. So I’m voting on this matter with my feet.

I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s once this year, in part to protest their low-wage business model, and in part because I’m carrying around too much McDonald’s food with me already. And I don’t miss it, either. Life without McDonald’s is just great.

This is my fourth McGolden Trophy, and the others are here and here and here.

Until next month…..

It only cost a quarter


On opening day of the 2014 season–at least from the perspective of Wrigley Field–I couldn’t resist driving past the ballpark in the morning, before the gates opened and the crowds arrived.

It was a cold and gray day, the kind that nobody would ask for if ordering up the weather were possible. But that isn’t possible, and a miserable opening day is better than a sunny day in the offseason. That’s what  this baseball-deprived fan thinks, anyway.

The brick walls along Sheffield and Waveland Avenues have always been left bare in the past, but this year they have become a canvas for images from the Cubs’ long and mostly fruitless history. It was good to see this done, in the 100th anniversary of the opening of Wrigley Field. May they never again be plain old brick walls.

I pulled out my camera and snapped a quick picture of one historical image. It was a program cover from the 1945 World Series. Every Cubs fan knows that they haven’t been back to the World Series since then, meaning that no one under the age of about seventy has any memory of this. It’s a heavy burden that every Cubs fan has to bear (no pun intended).

1945 was a terribly long time ago. To put this into perspective, consider what a quarter can buy in today’s world. It’s not very much, that’s for certain. Even a pencil to keep score with probably costs more than a quarter. So looking at the program’s cost in the lower right corner is a jarring reminder of just how long ago 1945 is.

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.

Sign o’ the times


Monday morning, suburban Chicago

I went inside to pay for the gas I had just pumped, and was on my way to the drink fountain when I noticed the trash can. And sitting on the top were at least a half dozen wrapped breakfast sandwiches. There’s a story about how they got there, I’m sure, but you wouldn’t have to go very far from the gas station I was at to find someone who could really use a  breakfast sandwich.

America is a land of great opportunities, but also a land of great disparities. If the will existed to feed the less fortunate, those sandwiches wouldn’t be staring up at me as I put a straw into my drink. And if I had an inclination to inquire on the spot, something could have happened to help someone out. But the struggle to get by in 2014 extends to me, too. My lunch breaks aren’t unlimited, unfortunately.

Blame society, blame me, blame a culture that has desensitized us to the suffering that exists in this affluent nation we live in. And while you’re at it, think about ways we can make things better.