The most important right of all



Twenty-four hours ago, the Twitterverse was ablaze with people like me who were mocking an elected official named Kirby Delauter. It turned out that Mr. Delauter didn’t like something a reporter had written about him, and he threatened that reporter with legal action if she wrote his name without his permission.

Of course, #KirbyDelauter took a pounding on Twitter and everywhere else. The idea that someone’s name could be off limits is so imbecilic, so alien to everything that we treasure in a free society. He brought it on himself, by asserting rights that simply do not exist. He has since walked his comments back, declaring that “the first amendment is alive and well.”

But things have since taken a far more sinister turn in Paris. Three gunmen, who were apparently outraged by satirical cartoons about the prophet Muhammad, went into the offices of the Charlie Hebdo publication and began firing. Twelve people were killed in the attack, and support for those who were killed has poured in from around the world.

This was a lot more substantive than a politician wanting to keep his name off-limits. This was a declaration that a religious figure could not be depicted in any way, lest his followers become offended. And this offense would then lead to violence and death. A more intolerable attack on the concept of liberty cannot be imagined.

Nobody–of any religious persuasion–gets to decide when someone dies over a cartoon. It may be only a cartoon, represented by ink on a page or pixels on a computer screen. But it’s a whole lot more than that, too. It’s the idea that angering or offending someone is out of bounds, with the conclusion that any person who feels offended then has the right to take matters into their own hands.

The truth is that nobody has this right, at least not in a modern society. If something I say offends you, that’s your problem. You have only the right to grow some thicker skin and get over it.

The people who gathered in cities around the world tonight were affirming–in the most forceful of all terms–not only their own rights, but also my rights, and your rights, too. It’s an outpouring that seems like it shouldn’t be necessary, but apparently it is.

There simply can’t be people running around in this world, using modern weaponry to enforce a philosophy rooted several centuries in the past. People of all ideological stripes must stand up against this worldview, lest the unyielding forces of intolerance gain a foothold in our modern world.

Let it be known that we–the people of the 21st century–will stand and march and draw and write and otherwise attack the notion that an offensive representation can lead to death. It would appear that even Kirby Delauter can get on board with this idea.

He went to Paris

Paris 001

A few months ago, I happened upon a photo album–more like a notebook, really–from a trip I took to Paris about 15 years ago. I’ve written about it before, and it remains to this day the best place that I have visited. There are some days when I think it’s Maui instead, but if someone were to ask me where I’d like to live if money (and language barriers) were no issue, I think I’d probably say Paris.

As I was flipping through the images of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the other places we went–at least before our camera was stolen at Luxembourg Gardens–this image jumped out at me for some reason. It was a man who dressed in white and stood stock still, in order to resemble a statue. He was a street performer, and he was located on one of the sidewalks near Notre Dame Cathedral.

It occurred to me that this picture was taken in the pre-digital age of photography. The further we get away from that period (it ended around 2002 for me), the more we forget what it was like. In particular, the uncertainty of how photos were going to turn out is now a thing of the past. The viewfinder tells all, these days.

So what happened was some person went to pose with the human statue, but at the last minute, the statue turned to look at someone else. It worked out fine for me, but the other person’s picture was ruined, in a way they probably didn’t realize until they got their film developed.

Time marches on, and I wonder if this Parisienne statue is still working the beat somewhere in Paris. Lucky him if he is, but I rather doubt it. Unlike an actual statue, he–like the rest of us–has to move around from time to time.

Visiting the dead beneath Paris

Whenever I hear that someone is going to Paris, I always feel compelled to offer some advice. Having been there just one time–for a week in the late 1990s–I’m far from an expert on the city. And there’s no point in telling someone to go to the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees, because no one’s going to go there and somehow miss those things. My advice is more off the beaten path, and I will share it here as well: Whatever it takes, go and see the Catacombs.

Paris emptied out its graveyards centuries ago, and piled up its millions of skulls and femurs inside an old mining network. So if you want an experience that’s completely unique, and creepy enough to stay with you for a long time to come, then go to the 14th Arrondissement and take a stroll through a maze of the macabre.

For me, there’s no better way to appreciate being alive than observing the way that the plates in someone else’s head were once fused together. I’m sure that says something about me, but let’s not think too deeply about what that is, shall we?

When the music’s over, turn out the lights

For as long as I can remember, The Doors have had a place in my life. I first got into their music after I bought the Greatest Hits album on vinyl, back when I was in elementary school. I read No One Here Gets Out Alive, Danny Sugarman’s biography of Jim Morrison, when I was supposed to be reading The Great Gatsby or whatever else we were reading for American Lit. And on and on, right up to looking at Jim Morrison’s Boy Scout uniform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one week ago. It’s hard to imagine that the Lizard King was ever a Boy Scout, but I’ve seen the proof.

But the most vivid, and most bizarre, memory I have of the Doors was visiting Jim Morrison’s grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His grave has been a shrine, of sorts, ever since he died in Paris in 1971. In fact, it was the first thing I wanted to see when I visited Paris, back in the 1990s. The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and the palace at Versailles were all on the itinerary, but Morrison’s grave came first for me.

The problem is–and this surely is a problem–that it’s not easy to find his grave. Pere LaChaise is possibly the most famous cemetery in the world, and the list of artists and other luminaries–nearly all of them French–who are buried there is long and impressive. And the French, who guard their culture like no other people on earth, don’t like the crowds who come looking for the grave of an American singer. And they like it even less when other graves are defaced with arrows pointing in the direction of Morrison’s grave.

But getting to the gravesite is its own reward. People leave food and joints and other offerings, and they take pictures and talk to others about the Doors and what their music means to them. It’s probably time that could be better spent wandering through the streets of Paris, but it’s also the closest that I’ll ever come to making a pilgrimage, in the Canterbury Tales sense of the word.

So to end with a quote from Morrison’s poetry,

When the music is your only friend

Dance on fire as it intends

Music is your only friend

Until the end

Paris, not horrible at all

When I was young, maybe in the first or second grade, there was a schoolyard chant that was directed at me. Kids being kids, the chant wasn’t very kind. It went like this:

Horrible Harris

Went to Paris

To go see Roger Maris

To a seven year-old kid, who didn’t know anything about Paris, or even who Roger Maris was (he played before my time, and I wasn’t a baseball fan yet), this was traumatic stuff. Most of all, I knew that “horrible” meant really bad, and I didn’t want to be that. I didn’t want to hear it so, of course, I heard it a lot, for a week or so until the novelty was gone and everyone moved on to something else.

Time went by, as it always does, and one day a couple of decades later I found myself in Paris, of all places. I wrote of my appreciation for the city here. It was a trip that I had wanted to take my whole life: the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysees, the cathedral at Notre Dame, Jim Morrison’s grave, and all of the museums. Museums were everywhere, including the palace at Versailles, which has to be the largest museum on earth.

I really like this shot of me in front of I.M. Pei’s Pyramid. It’s such a contrast with the setting around it. I know that feeling, to be out of place and unappreciated. But love it or hate it, it’s just going to be there, regardless. I am the pyramid, in some ways. And I don’t look too bad in the picture, either.

I flew home from Paris with my wife on her birthday. As a result of flying west across the Atlantic, we gained an extra seven hours to the day, making it the longest day of my life, literally. It was a departure I didn’t want to make, because I really did love the experience that Paris is. But in the years since then, children have come into our lives, and life has moved along pretty well. It’s a life that I could have scarcely imagined back in second grade.

I’ve often said I’ll never leave Chicago, at least not until my kids are grown and the Cubs win the World Series. One of these things I’m desperately waiting for, and the other one I’m not. But if both should happen, and I’m old and not terribly poor, I’d love to just go off to Paris like Jimmy Buffett once sang about. And Roger Maris isn’t with us anymore, or else I would look him up when I got there.

Vive Paris!

France is, and probably always will be, the top tourist destination on earth. And Paris is the biggest reason why. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ve been there at least once before. If not, I hope that you get there before you die. I would hate to die without having experienced it.

My wife and I were in Paris at this time of year, back in 1996. It was Spring Break for me, and we had not yet had any kids, and so we hopped a flight across the proverbial pond and we went. This is her, looking through a travel guide, somewhere near the Seine. The building behind her is draped in the French tricolour, but as an American, they’re my colors, too.

My contention is that everyone looks better with Paris draped all around them. If you’ve been there before, you already know this. And if you haven’t, there’s one way to find out. Just be sure to send me a note about how much fun you had.

Au Revoir!