Fires on the mountain

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The Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville area of the Great Smoky Mountains–and the word “Great” does apply to this region–is a beautiful place. I’ve been there on a few occasions, beginning when I was ten years old, and I’ve written about it here before. So the news that there are 14 fires burning there right now is very saddening.

Fires are natural, and the region has no doubt burned before. But this is awful news, and rebuilding won’t be an easy process. Some will certainly lose all they have. My heart goes out to them, absolutely.

The beauty of the mountains won’t look like this again for quite some time. I’m glad I have memories of how it once looked.

May those who suffer losses one day feel whole again. And may we wake up to the reality of what we’re doing to our planet.

A new word for these times

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Portmanteau is a concept that we all live with everyday. It’s taking two–or sometimes more–words and combining them to form a new word. My dog, for example, is a schnoodle, or a cross between a schnauzer and a poodle. Other portmanteu words include jeggings, listicle, and threepeat. The malleability of English guarantees that new words of this sort will always be created.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as president, a wave of aberrant behavior swept across this country. One of the more publicized acts–because it occurred in New York and had to do with well-known artists–was painting swastikas and the words “Go Trump” in Adam Yauch Park, which is named for a member of the Beastie Boys, the late Adam “MCA” Yauch.

Yauch was Jewish by birth, but he was a practicing Buddhist from 1996 until his death. With this in mind, the swastikas don’t make any sense–there or anywhere else–other than to identify religious animus in the hearts of whoever committed this act.

In trying to cope with this stupid act, a gathering was held in Adam Yauch Park on November 20. Adam “AdRock” Horovitz addressed the crowd, and advised them to fight back in any way that they could. “If you’re a writer, write” was one of the bits of advice he gave. So consider this an attempt to live up to AdRock’s advice and speak out against the Trump-inspired acts of hate that are taking place in this country.

“Antipathy” is a word that someone who isn’t a writer doesn’t normally use. If you don’t like somebody, it is usually enough to call them a name and be done with it. The saltier and more profane the terms used are, the more it gets the speaker or writer’s sense of antipathy toward that person across.

In thinking about my feelings toward Donald Trump, and the divisions and fears he exploited in order to appeal to millions of voters across this country, I realized that “antipathy” is a fitting word to describe them. But I also realized that the word “Trump” can be dropped into the middle of the word, and the general feeling of both words would still make sense. Thus, antipathy directed toward Donald Trump will be forever known–at least by me–as “antrumpathy.”

Whether I’m the only person who ever uses this word, or it spreads like wildfire and gets added to a dictionary someday, is secondary to the idea that Trump’s election will lead–and already has led–this country into places I’ve never seen go before. Hate crimes are on the rise, and this is before Trump even takes office. Trump’s never going to explicitly call for any attacks, of course, but some who look on his election approvingly are now acting in ways that they would not have done just two months ago. So fight back we must, and I’m using creativity and my humble blog to do exactly that.

So please use this new word in whatever setting works best. Don’t try making any money from it, though, because I’m not and I don’t want anyone else to, either. This word hopefully won’t be needed in four years, when Trump leaves the White House after a single term in office. But for now, consider it a nonviolent addition to the language of our protest. And the Beastie Boys would certainly approve of that turn of events.

Hamilton and what makes America work

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I’ve written before of my fondness for Hamilton: An American Musical. I’ve listened to the songs–over and over and over again–but haven’t seen it on stage, and don’t think that I will for a long time, if ever. Not because I don’t want to, but the price of tickets precludes that from happening right now. But maybe someday…

It’s beyond ironic to me that Hamilton’s life story has been ignored for so long. There was talk of removing him from the ten-dollar bill before this musical came along, but it’s pretty safe to say that it won’t happen now. In fact, if Hamilton wasn’t already depicted on our currency, we might be calling for his inclusion somewhere. But he’s there, and he’s not going away, nor should he.

Hamilton was an immigrant who contributed mightily to the birth of the United States, both on the battlefield and as a political mover and shaker. And, as the Ron Chernow biography of his life–which inspired the play–points out, it’s quite possible that he was powerfully attracted to John Laurens, a fellow revolutionary. Two of the groups that Donald Trump and Mike Pence have targeted can claim Hamilton as one of their own.

So when Mike Pence went to see the show on Broadway yesterday, it’s possible that he understood this about Hamilton’s own life story. But then again, perhaps he did not. I certainly did not know either of these things before 2016, and I’m glad to have a fuller understanding of who Hamilton was and how he contributed to the country I call home.

When immigrants, gay people, and those who support and love them have an opportunity to address someone who is on the record as opposing them, they must seize it. They must not, in the words of one of the show’s main songs, throw away their shot by remaining silent. They waited until the show was over, and then addressed the vice-president elect with warmth and hope. Nothing disrespectful was said, or even suggested, by the remarks delivered from the stage. It was a message on behalf of Americans, who may not have voted for Trump and Pence but will still be affected by the decisions they will make.

But the Trump supporters went bonkers. Perhaps they want actors, musicians, poets, and everyone else who creates art to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. But our Bill of Rights unequivocally protects their right to speak their minds freely. To misunderstand that is to miss what America is all about. And Trump’s demand for an apology would be laughable if it weren’t so clueless. Who has more to apologize for that Donald Trump? Yet he won’t do it, so why should anyone else? Particularly when nothing improper or offensive was done or said.

I’m not looking forward to a Trump presidency, but I’m expecting all Americans who oppose him to feel empowered to protest and speak out, because that’s what make America what it is. Silence and acquiescence are not American values, and shame on us if we ever allow them to become so.

So I will apologize to Donald Trump, since he seems to need one. My apology to him is that America will not be bowing down to him, his family, his cabinet members, his advisors, his donors, or the thugs who now feel like it’s open season on the Other in this country. We’ll reserve our rights, and exercise them freely, at every opportunity over the coming four years. Sorry if you don’t like that—well, on second thought, nevermind.

No apologies will be forthcoming. If Pence and Trump want to lead America, they must accept that Americans are going to do the American thing and speak out. And any attempt to vilify that course of actions is where a true apology would be needed. Not that we should ever expect to see one, of course.

An amazing 48 hours

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It’s been just about 48 hours–give or take a few minutes–since Kris Bryant threw over to first base to end the Cubs’ long championship drought. In an instant, a lifetime of losing was washed away. The “loveable losers” never existed in the first place, but that concept went away forever on the night of November 2, 2016.

I had already paid my respects to Jack Brickhouse at the start of the World Series, and now that it had come to a successful conclusion, I wanted to do the same with Ernie Banks. He wasn’t known as “Mr. Cub” for nothing, as his devotion to the team was matched by the love and respect that all living Cubs fans have for him.

When Ernie died in early 2015, I went to a spot on the sidewalk outside of Wrigley Field to pay my respects. I also felt something change inside of me, with a new sense of determination that the Cubs had to win, and the sooner the better. I put these thoughts into words for a piece published by FiveWideSports, and I fully understood that winning on the field was beyond my control. All I could do as a fan was expect it to happen, which I never really did before that moment.

When 2015 started going well for the Cubs, I was ready to finally go all the way, and it made their eventual flameout against the Mets that much harder to bear. Every season now had an all-or-nothing sense about it, which carried over into 2016. I told a Cardinals blog back in February that “This Year” had finally arrived, and following a terrible scare in Cleveland my prediction came to pass. The euphoria this has made me feel hasn’t yet worn off, either.

So I went to tell Ernie that we finally did it, by inscribing a baseball and leaving at his gravesite in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. It was a lovely fall day, and I had some time on my way into work. I never met Ernie Banks, but I did sing a song with him once, and I tried to use the experience to put being a Cubs fan into words. Ernie Banks meant a lot to me, and I wanted to thank him for this.

There was a reporter at the gravesite, and I spoke to him for probably 15 or 20 minutes about being a Cubs fan. I wish that every Cubs fan could have had a few minutes with a reporter yesterday, because each of us has so many stories to tell. I did my best to give him something worthwhile, and apparently I did because the story ran in the New York Daily News today, complete with my grinning mug at the top of the page.  My elation at having just come from the team’s victory parade down Addison Street in Chicago was made even sweeter by the news that for today I was the face of Cubs fans for newspaper readers in New York. It’s a daunting idea, but a role I would gladly accept for the team that means so much to me.

The papers themselves will all go into a landfill soon enough, but the story will live on digitally for a long time to come. And I’ll have a story that will live on here on my blog, as well. The greatest feeling I’ve ever had about anything–other than the birth of my two daughters–was greatly enhanced because I took some time to remember an ambassador for the team I’ve identified with for so long. That’s the stuff life is made of, isn’t it?

The parade report will come soon enough, but for now I’m off to get some rest. Good night to all.

The Cubs Win, at last

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It was the darkest moment of the Cubs’ 2016 championship run. The Cubs had lost to Korey Kluber for the second time in Game 4, and found themselves in a three games to one hole. Elimination seemed to be staring them in the face in Sunday’s early hours, and I wanted to do my part to help.

A Chicago radio station was taking calls from its listeners, and I had a long drive ahead of me so I called in to add some words of encouragement. I have done this many times over the years, as recently as the Dodgers series when the Cubs also seemed to be on the verge of losing. My message then was “keep the faith, it’s not over yet, remember what the Red Sox did in 2004.” It felt good to say that, and know that everything was going to work out in the end. And it did, because the Cubs came back to beat the Dodgers to move on to the World Series for the first time in my lifetime.

But the Sunday morning talk show wasn’t having it. I told the call screener I wanted to talk about the Cubs on air, and he asked me what I wanted to say. I told him that the series wasn’t over, and that past experience shows that a series isn’t over until the last out is recorded. He asked me if there was anything to add to that, and I told him that 2004 was evidence that comebacks can happen.

He sounded put upon for some reason, and told me that saying that sounded “dumb.” He then asked for my name, because perhaps he realized it was 1:30 AM and people aren’t lining up to call radio stations at that hour anyway. I think he was going to put me on the air, but I decided that he and the station he worked for didn’t deserve hearing such crazy thoughts as mine. I hung up, and asked myself what was dumb about trying to exhort Cubs fans to not give up on their team. The answer was there was nothing “dumb” about it at all.

The Cubs did indeed come back, and the station’s call screener probably celebrated like the rest of us last night. But he should realize that hope is sometimes all that a person has, and suggestions that such hope is dumb is, well, beyond dumb. It’s cruel. Hope must always be encouraged, wherever it exists.

I feel great today, as I knew I would after an event I’ve waited for over most of my life. And I realize that the hopes and dreams of Cubs fans–which sustained us over a terribly bad period of losing and despair–make the victory that much sweeter. In 1776, in the first volume of The American Crisis, Thomas Paine wrote “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” And today sure feels glorious to me.

It’s gonna be a World Series weekend in Chicago

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One of my favorite old school Sammy Hagar songs–and I have quite a few of them–is Rock and Roll Weekend. Not only does Sammy name-check Chicago (and Cleveland) toward the end of the song, but he paints an image of the best part of the week, being filled up with the best music there is. A better combination could not exist.

So it’s worth pointing out that while Cleveland had the early part of the 2016 World Series on a Tuesday and Wednesday night, and they may get the final games of the Series again next week, this weekend will belong to the Chicago Cubs. The city has been starving for World Series action my entire lifetime (and probably yours, too), and when it finally does arrive it’s in the form of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday games.It could not be any more perfect than that.

So let’s rock, Chicago. Let’s fill the air with a celebration that none of us have ever known, and one that we may not ever see again, at least not exactly like this. Get on the phone, tell all your friends!

Tell ’em it going to be a World Series-winning weekend.

Carte blanch vs. “pussy”

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I haven’t been shy about expressing my disdain for Donald Trump in this space. He’s a disaster on every level, and I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would ever vote for him.

Writing about his as often as I do is therapeutic, and it also preserves my objections for anyone who ever wants to know about them. In 2016, the United States is heading on a path that would be, I think, destructive to what this nation is. We cannot survive a Donald Trump presidency, and I’m trusting that enough of my countrymen and countrywomen will realize this.

A recording made of Trump speaking in what he thought was an unrecorded moment on a bus in 2005 has surfaced within the past 24 hours. The date of the tape is immaterial to me. If it was recorded in 1965 or 1995 or yesterday doesn’t change the content of what was said. People change in life, and I’m sure that I have said stupid things in my past that I wouldn’t want dredged up today. But the underlying mentality is what really gets me.

And Trump’s use of the word “pussy” isn’t what troubles me, either. We all throw some words into our discussions that we wouldn’t want our children to hear, even if they hear these terms–and probably much worse–in conversations with their friends. So “pussy” it is, because Trump used the word and I won’t sugar coat anything here.

What Trump said that was so outrageous was premised upon his belief that he can kiss a woman, or grope her, or do whatever he wants to do with her. His celebrity entitles him to act in any way he sees fit. The objects of his behavior are expected to either be flattered by his attention, or at least remain quiet about it for fear of reprisals from him. Unlimited authority to do anything he pleases. That’s what Trump told Billy Bush that he thinks he has.

Trump’s staged apology on this matter is not sufficient to dispel any damage this recording has created. A man who believes that he can do whatever he wants has no business in political office, of any sort. Democracy gives the people the right to remove such a person from their position or–even more importantly–to prevent him from attaining it in the first place. Do the right thing, America, and do not validate his warped and dangerous worldview.

 

Inside the Ricketts Square

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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.

Trying to understand

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The picture above dates to 1998, and it shows a much younger, much thinner version of me during my teaching days on the south side of Chicago.

This was taken in the days before cameraphones, or even before digital photography, with an old school camera. They were fun because you wound up with a print that you could actually hold in your hands. It seems like forever ago, sometimes.

When I saw the video on Facebook of the death of Philando Castile, I thought about the kids I used to teach, two decades ago. They’re teenagers in this picture, but every one of them was already living with the possibility of ending up in a deadly encounter with a police officer. Not a day has gone by where they aren’t considered a suspect, in a way I never was and never will be.

I enjoyed teaching and coaching, but I also reached a point where I was ready to leave. For four years I tried to make a difference, in whatever small way I could. I watched as a group of freshmen–some of whom are shown in the picture–grew into seniors and got their diplomas. And then I left, disillusioned with what I was doing and the way I was doing it. I was a visitor into their world, and my skin tone gave me exit options that they never had.

I’ve since connected with some of my old ballplayers on social media, and I’m glad to see them at the stage of life where they aren’t teenagers anymore. But many of them I couldn’t name today, either. I hope they’re all happy with their lives, but I don’t have any way of knowing whether that’s the case.

The other coach, on the left side of the picture, was the cafeteria manger at my school, as Philando Castile was in St. Paul. I’m certain that there are lots of kids at that school who aren’t yet able to understand why it happened. They’ll learn in time, or possibly this event will force understandings on them that they weren’t ready to deal with. There’s pain in that school community, and it will be magnified once classes start up again in the fall.

Black lives matter. That should not be a controversial statement, but somehow it is. The ongoing shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Philando Castile and countless others reinforces the fact that this country, writ large, views black men as suspects.  Woe unto us as a nation, if we see these shootings occur and don’t think that something must change.

I write this blog to sort through my thoughts, and then share the results with some tiny piece of the online world. Facebook posts and tweets aren’t sufficient for saying anything of importance, and this subject is about as important as it gets. The killings have to stop, and the only way of making this happen is to demand action.

Police have got to held accountable when they fail to live up to their oaths, and social media must be used whenever and however it can be to preserve events as they happen.The memory of what happened to Philando Castile demands nothing less.

A horrible image

 

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Since this is the 4th of July weekend, I pulled a copy of “Masterpieces of American Literature,” published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1891, off my bookshelf about an hour ago. I once bought it for 50 cents at an estate sale, and have found interesting things in it from time to time. I wanted to see what insights it would offer me this evening, so I started paging through its contents.

I came upon an essay written by James Russell Lowell for The North American Review in January of 1864. For some people, anything written that long ago has nothing to say to them. A world without the internet, or even indoor plumbing, holds nothing of interest to those who think that the 20th century was a long time ago. But the historian I’ve always tried to be takes the opposite approach. As Patrick Henry once said, “I know of know way to judge the future, but by the experiences of the past.” And 1864 certainly qualifies on this front.

Lowell was an influential poet and an abolitionist, and his writings received considerable attention at the time. Something that he wrote, in the midst of a lengthy election-year defense of President Lincoln, made me realize what a horrible candidate–and person–Donald Trump truly is.

In describing Lincoln, Lowell wrote that “he has always addressed the intelligence of men, never their prejudice, their passion, or their ignorance.”

I stopped when I read this, because Donald Trump’s appeal seems rooted in a continuing appeal to all three elements. The historic stereotypes about Jews and money seem to be on full display in the image above. And if replacing the image of a six-pointed star with a circle instead is all it takes for Trump to avoid responsibility for this image, that will be the most stunning example yet of what Trump has been allowed to get away with in this campaign.

How about passion? Consistently referring to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” instead is about as low as it gets on this front. People don’t want crooked politicians, in any form or fashion, and attempting to use this term to create an automatic, unthinking association to his opponent is a manipulation of people’s passions about politicians.

The third element Lowell refers to is ignorance. Is Hillary the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever”? How would that ever be quantified or proven? The point is there’s no desire to do so. Trump says it, so it must be true. That’s about as ignorant as it gets.

For James Russell Lowell, who lived during Lincoln’s time as president, there were some appeals that simply weren’t made. And we continue to love Lincoln for exactly the reasons that Lowell described. So when Donald Trump–or any of his supporters–attempts to lay claim to Lincoln’s political party as his own, his routine appeals to prejudice, passion, and ignorance must be pointed out. He’s no Lincoln, as this affair makes perfectly clear.

 

Shut down Volkswagen

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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.

No More Guns Over People

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I’ve never held a gun, owned a gun, fired a gun, or had the first thing to do with a gun. They aren’t my thing, but they are many people’s thing. That’s fine. I’m not here to pass judgment on anybody for that. But the Columbine shooting happened just a few days after my older daughter was born, and how many mass shootings have happened since then? Sandy Hook hit me hard, and Orlando did too, but there are probably a hundred others where I shook my head and moved along until it happened again. That can’t happen anymore.
 
I’m quite comfortable with the 2016 elections being a binary propositions about guns in this country. Either we do nothing at all to limit people’s access to guns–the NRA model–or we do something in the hope that it saves even one life somewhere. If your home is on fire, you don’t passively watch it burn. But that’s what our Congress is doing, and will continue to do. The NRA owns them, and their inaction on this matter is entirely by design.
 
So vote guns this fall, or don’t. It really is just that simple. Mark Kirk, my senator in Illinois, broke ranks with his party (the GunsOverPeople crowd) but it won’t be enough to get him re-elected, not when his war hero opponent was on the House floor during yesterday’s sit in. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and these are indeed desperate times. Grieving families from coast to coast will attest to that.

American Ugly

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This is what Donald Trump appeals to. This big scary guy filled with rage wants to intimidate anyone who he doesn’t see as “American.” This guy is only one Trump supporter, but he’s also a symbol for the dark, destructive urges that Trump plays to. If Trump wins, this guy wins, too. That simply can’t happen.

The video is filled with as much ugliness as you would expect, so watch at your own peril. But the picture and the story are enough to paint a very disturbing picture. Silence in the face of this is not an option, either.

I’ve been struggling with the idea that one of the two main political parties could nominate Trump to run this country. I’m still convinced they’ll snap out of it before it’s too late, and throw the nomination to someone else. That person could even be worse than Trump, but the folly of putting Trump on the ballot should be clear for everyone to see, except for maybe this guy. And that’s precisely why Trump is so toxic for this country.

One Proud Nation

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I’m heartbroken over the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It’s a guns problem, for certain, because not a single person deserves the right to take 49 lives in an instant. Banning assault weapons makes perfect sense to me. Keep some guns if you want to, but don’t put that kind of firepower in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to control themselves.

It’s also a hatred problem, too. The shooter targeted people whose lifestyle he didn’t agree with. If there is a hell, hopefully he’s in it. But either way, dozens are dead, and millions are crushed and angry at the same time. And moments of silence must not become a token gesture, or a cover for a Congress that won’t change a damn thing, no matter how many lives are lost.

When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, gay people were hidden deep in the closet. They were a curiosity, a punchline, and something to be afraid of, because of course they wanted to make everybody else gay, too. But then I went to college in the late 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic was raging. I began to realize that even though being gay wasn’t my thing, it didn’t pose any threats to me, either.

I moved into Chicago in the early 1990s, and found the Gay Pride Parade, as it was known back then, to be the highlight of the summer. People came from far and wide to line Broadway, soak up the sunshine, and have a good time together. For as long as I lived in Lakeview and what later became known as Boystown, it was the summer event I looked forward to all year long.

It’s amazing that society–at least the part I want to be a part of–has moved to gay rights acceptance so quickly. But on the other hand, maybe it’s a shame that it didn’t happen sooner than it did. But it has happened, and people can live their lives openly and marry the person they love, regardless of what gender they are.

And that bothers some people, clearly. But those people are being pushed to the fringes, on their way–hopefully–to ultimate extinction. The person I got into a shouting match with across Diversey Avenue more than a decade ago, about whether bringing my young children to the Pride Parade (as it was known by then) was a sin, has hopefully moderated his position since then. But if not, he’s quickly becoming outnumbered in society, as he deserves to be.

I haven’t been to the Pride parade in many years, because I don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, and because fighting the crowds–routinely estimated at over a million people each year–seems like a hassle. But this year, in light of the Orlando shooting, I feel as if I have to go.

Pride started out as something organic within the gay community, but it’s since grown far beyond that. And the millions who will line Broadway Avenue again in ten days’ time will serve as a beautiful testament to our capacity for celebrating ourselves and having a good time in the process.

About the guy in the gold top hat above: I’m not sure why I took his picture a long time ago, but my daughters and I have affectionately referred to him over the years as “Captain Buttcheeks.” I couldn’t quite bring myself to devote an entire post to him, but I definitely wanted to share him with the world. Wherever he is today, I hope he’s still rocking the boots with the top hat, and waving at everyone he meets.

In the #HamZone

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The Tony Awards are tonight, and I plan pay attention to them this year because of the Hamilton phenomenon. I’m surprised I haven’t written about it here, because I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for months on end. If Prince hadn’t died in April, it would now be month three of solid Hamilton listening for me.

The music tells a fantastic story, and has succeeded in bringing history into the mainstream and–more importantly–making it relevant to schoolkids. That’s something of a miracle, in its own right. I taught history for several years in the Chicago Public Schools, and always tried to make the past interesting. But music has charms that I never possessed, either.

So I’m figuratively in the Hamilton zone, for sure. I think this will last through the end of the year, at least, because the first Hamilton run outside of New York opens in Chicago this fall. Hamilton will open in other cities after that, and the diffusion of this show will bring new excitement along the way. How lucky we are to be alive to see it.

But I’m literally in a Hamilton zone of a different sort. I’ve written before about outliving people–usually writers–and musing about the random nature of life and how much of it each of us is allowed to have. Whenever someone dies now, the first question I ask is how old they were when they passed. For instance, I am younger than Muhammad Ali, and older than Christina Grimmie, when their days came to an end.

Ali himself said “Don’t count the days, Make the days count”  so age isn’t a measure of very much. But in terms of sunrises and sunsets, I’ve had more than Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, Albert Camus, and many others. And I’ll keep having them until further notice, however long that may be.

But whether I’ve passed Hamilton or not is an open question. Everyone knows Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr in the summer of 1804, but when he was born isn’t so clear cut. He considered his birthday to be 1757, and gave that as his birth year when he immigrated to America in 1772. By this count, he would have died at the age of about 47 and a half.

But the official documents from the island of Nevis tell another story. They indicate he was born in 1755, making him two years older than he told the world he was. We would all, at a certain point in life, like to be two years younger than we really are, and Hamilton lived his life this way.

So the birthday I have coming up in two days is the first of two in what I’m calling the #HamZone (Hamilton has devised all sorts of interesting hashtags of this variety, so I’m running with it here, as well). I’m already older than Hamilton told the world he was at the time of his death, but still younger than what he may actually have been. And in a year when Hamilton’s life has become relevant through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing show, it’s a pretty cool place to be, I must admit.

 

 

Forever the Greatest

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The news that Muhammad Ali is on life support today is incredibly sad. His Parkinson’s disease has kept him out of the public eye for so long, but I always took comfort from knowing that the man who deserves to be called “The Greatest” was breathing, somewhere on this planet.

Seeing a larger than life Leroi Neiman painting of Ali at his center in Louisville, Kentucky a few years ago gave me chills. Learning his life story was an inspiration to me, too. And watching his fights against Joe Frazier inspired a piece I use as a writing sample, when the situation presents itself.

I know that he’s now 74 and this could be the final count of his career. If that’s the case, I’m glad to say that I remember seeing him fight against Leon Spinks when I was a kid. Not everyone is old enough to say that, either.

Sign O’ the times, mess with your mind

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Learning that Prince died from an overdose of fentanyl makes his death harder to deal with than ever. I’ve forgotten by now what the original cause of death was reported to be, but people swore up and down that his religion and/or his healthy lifestyle meant that drugs could not have played a role. But that lie has now been exposed for what it is.

When I was in graduate school a quarter of a century ago, I was given an assignment to find artifacts from different periods of history. The artifacts I used were a metallic bell that purported to be made from the USS Maine as a relic from the 1890s, the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter as a relic of the 1940s, and Prince’s song “Sign O’ the Times” as a relic of the 1980s. We were hardly even out of the 1980s at that point, and it already felt like Prince had encapsulated that decade as well as anybody could.

The lyrics to the song addressed everything from AIDS (“a big disease with a little name”) to crime (“being ‘ in a gang called the Disciples high on crack, totin’ a machine gun”) to the space shuttle disaster (“when the rocket ship explodes”). It was a snapshot of, well, the times we were living in back in the 1980s. I knew it then, and am even more aware of it now, all these years later.

But a line from it foreshadows Prince’s own death. Anyone familiar with the song knows what it is, but since many aren’t familiar with it, I’ll spell it out here as a public service. Think of it as my good deed for the day. Prince sings the following line:

In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time

Now he’s doin’ Horse, it’s June

“Horse” was a reference to heroin, and the idea Prince was getting at was marijuana was thought of as a gateway to harder, more serious drugs like heroin. It’s beyond ironic, then, that a man who sang about heroin addiction could one day become a victim of it, himself. But what’s even more telling is that a gateway to heroin does exist, but it’s not marijuana at all.

The gateway that led Prince to heroin and fentanyl was opioids, and Percocet in particular. It needs to be pointed out that these drugs are legal when prescribed by a doctor. They aren’t illegal street drugs, the way that marijuana and LSD are. They are what’s known as Schedule II drugs, meaning they are entrusted to the medical community for the purposes of treating and managing pain. But once they leave the medical community, havoc ensues. And the path from there to heroin–a Schedule I drug which is cheaper and easier to obtain than the prescription drugs–is all too well-traveled.

If Prince– with all of his fame and notoriety–could not escape the clutches of these drugs, it highlights the challenges the rest of us face. We’re all just an injury or a surgical recovery away from having these things given to us. And it’s all legal, right there before us, with a doctor’s approval and an insurance company co-pay to soften the financial blow.

Congress and the individual states have at last grasped the seriousness of the heroin and opioid epidemic. May prevention and treatment be the leaders of the pack in this regard, instead of a “tough on crime” approach that our legal system isn’t ready to support. That was tried once already, and it simply hasn’t worked.

Maybe the best thing to come from Prince’s death, if anything positive is to be found, is a realization that “horse” and the drugs leading up to it are not a joke, and that those of us who have been lucky enough to escape their clutches must not judge those who are in their grip. We should instead help them in whatever way we can, which will help our society rise above the damage these drugs have wrought. If this should happen, we’ll all be much better off.

To close with another Prince lyric, in the outro part of “Sign o’ the Times” he sings

Sign o’ the times, mess with your mind, hurry before it’s too late.

It’s not too late to address the issue of heroin and its related drugs, but we do need to have some urgency as the death toll continues to rise.

Time….

 

Unleashing my inner History teacher

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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?

 

Let’s hear it for the Bae

 

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The Cubs are off to an amazing start this year (24-6 through the first 30 games) and I haven’t yet written a single word about it. I voluntarily disengaged from my long-time writing gigs with FiveWideSports and ThroughTheFenceBaseball, just in time to have the Cubs catching fire like this. It’s all in the timing, I suppose.

Javier Baez hit a walk-off home run in the 13th inning to get the win today. I was very hard on Baez in his rookie season, because he struck out too damn much. But he had a hard time last season, between injuries and personal issues, and he kept on going to get through it. He even got injured before this season started, but he kept his head up and here he is. I’m certainly pulling for him going forward. For all the talent he obviously has, he’s a survivor, too.

I really don’t like the word “bae.” Kids use it, in part, because adults do not. If I were to call someone “bae” it would feel strange, and my children would make their displeasure known. Some terms they don’t want me using, and I don’t have the urge to use them, either.

But “bae” happens to be first three letters of Baez’s last name, and adding the Z separately at the end–a la Jay-Z–seems like it can work. I’m going to call him Bae-Z, especially when he goes deep in extra innings to win the game. And the odds are very small my children (or anyone else, for that matter) will encounter that term here.

None of this will matter once October arrives. The Cubs have to bring home the pennant and the World Series this year, because at least a few of the Cubs fans enjoying this year’s great ride won’t be here when the 2017 season rolls around. I’m not being ominous, as much as I’m stating a fact. The sooner the Cubs climb to the the mountaintop, the more fans will be able to die happy when their time comes.

But so far this year has been amazing, and I hope it continues.

 

Enough is enough

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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.

Saying thanks to The New Yorker

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Many years ago (almost 34 years, to be exact) I wrote a letter to the editor of a wrestling magazine. The young teenager that I was at the time watched a lot of professional wrestling on TV, and they were to me what Batman and Superman were for those who read comic books. Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Dick the Bruiser and, most of all, Roddy Piper were living, breathing examples of escapism and super powers. I would practice wrestling moves on the bed at home, or with my two younger brothers. It was a fun time in my life, and I miss it in some ways.

I felt sufficiently moved by my admiration for Roddy Piper to write a letter and put it in the mail slot of the hospital where I went to visit my dying grandmother. I never really thought they would publish it, though. Just saying it, or writing the words down, was enough for me at that time. But they published my letter in the fall of 1982, and the excitement I got from seeing my words and my name in print is something I haven’t since forgotten. My name has occasionally made its way into print, but literally millions of my words have been submitted  for public review since then. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that many of my ideas and words are floating around, somewhere.

Two days ago, in the aftermath of Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week, I was again moved to send out a letter to the editor of a magazine, this time The New Yorker. I was barely aware of who Prince was back in 1982 when I wrote my first letter to the editor, but I learned not too long after that. And just as the Internet has come along and brought great change to the way news and ideas are shared with the public, I didn’t actually write out a letter this time, but I did compose the following as an email:

It’s April 25, and the news of Prince’s sudden passing still feels shocking and raw. We’ve all had a weekend to mourn and reflect on what his music meant for those of us who grew up in the 80s, as well as those who either discovered his music after that, or those who followed his newer music right up until the end. It’s a hard time for all of us, no matter which category we may fall into.

Your April 25 cover is a fascinating glimpse into this present day. There’s just no way that anyone connected with your magazine could have known that, by the date appearing on the cover itself, we would lose a man who was an absolute wizard on the electric guitar. Nor could you realize that the man whose music broke down every barrier–racial, gender, and generational, to name just a few–would leave us within days of this cover’s appearance. And yet, there it is on your cover, in red and blue (and the fact the two colors combine to make purple is another inexplicable coincidence).

We can see people of all concert-going ages, backgrounds, and stations in life joined together in a room, enjoying themselves in a way that would not be possible in any other public setting. The guitar’s fretboard we can see on the cover, but the guitarist’s identity in this idyllic scene remains unknown. My interpretation is that the guitarist most likely to make such a gathering possible is the one who is being commemorated in purple in your next issue.

I’m already thinking of these as the most accidental–and yet most appropriate–covers pairing that we’ll ever see. Many thanks for such an unintentional gift.

Whether the New Yorker does anything with this note is besides the point. I had something to say, and I said it. And the internet and this blog allow me share this message with whatever part of the online world wants to read it, too. Just having an outlet for the idea is enough. And when the Prince tribute cover arrived in the mailbox today, I had to put the covers side by side and share them here. They are the beautiful ones, indeed.

The sky was all purple

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Springfield, Illinois–the town where I grew up–doesn’t have very many suburbs, but I lived in one of them. And for this suburban child of the 80s, the electric guitar reigned supreme. Led Zeppelin was my favorite, of course, but any record would either rise or fall in my estimation of it, based solely upon the level of guitar work it held forth.

Eddie Van Halen was in the pantheon of guitar gods, and others sometimes entered into his dominion. Sammy Hagar played some mean guitar, and those two joining forces in the 80s made me absolutely giddy with joy. Judas Priest had two dueling guitarists, which also raised their stature, at least for me. In a nutshell, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, guitar was good.

Prince’s Purple Rain provided the first glimpse to me of how gifted he was on the guitar. The solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” was ferocious, and the only thing I knew that was any better turned out to be that album’s title track. Prince sings the final lyric to that song, lets out a note that would make Les Paul proud, and then punctuates a beautiful song with some positively searing guitar work. None of the spandex-clad dudes from the Sunset Strip could touch that.

Maybe that’s why I loved Prince’s halftime show at the Super Bowl so much. He asks the crowd “Can I play this guitar?” and then proves to everyone that yes, he can play it, and better than any other guitarist could.

Nobody ever puts Prince high enough on the list of “greatest guitar players of all time.” Names like Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck invariably appear, and they’re all great artists. I would not want to disparage any of them. But when Prince chose to turn it loose on the guitar, nobody did it like him.

I’m watching the sunrise this morning in Wilmette, Illinois (although I don’t actually live here). The suburban kids who live here, and in a million other places, might not treasure the electric guitar in the same way that I once did. But those who do would be well-advised to savor the guitar work Prince laid down through the years. Then they might understand how a little bit of greatness can go a very long way.