My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Last Rights?

One more round on Terri Schiavo. Interesting mail that deserves a more coherent response from me: Tweed wrote
I'm not clear why you answered in the negative my last question. And so I put it again - why shouldn't someone have the right to determine that her or his life is not worth living? I'm not suggesting a free-for-all. It is an important decision. But isn't someone's psychological welfare important as well? If I know I'm going to die within a few weeks, why shouldn't I be allowed to plan for and orchestrate my own demise? Why is that so horrible? I understand the suicide point - and it's a good one that all the right-to-die people should keep in mind.

There's also a matter of fundamental fairness here: I didn't choose to enter this world (at least I don't think I did); but shouldn't I be able to choose to leave?

Like one of the quoted columnists, I'm uncomfortable with the Schiavo case because of the lack of written instructions. There is a solemnity (or should be) in properly documenting those sorts of wishes - a solemnity which should prompt careful thought. I'm uncomfortable with finding those wishes expressed in conversations.

Let me try to put my rational hat on for a moment. Suicide prevention was my area of professional interest before I discovered my true calling in the growing field of government bureaucracy. So my responses tend to be visceral rather than reasoned and intellectual. It's like that with memories formed on a lot of adrenaline.

First, I don't believe the government should forbid people who are dying from hastening the process in the interest of reducing suffering. What I disagree with is the proposition that ending one's life is an enforcable moral "right." Right now the state government decrees that you are not allowed to drive faster than 65 miles an hour on the expressway. It used to be 55. The government is fully within its powers to dictate that the speed limit shall be 30 miles an hour. This would be a bad policy. I would not support that policy. But that does not mean you have an inalienable right to drive at 65 miles an hour.

The government, and the society it represents, has a compelling interest in preventing you from killing yourself under most circumstances. It is the same interest it has in preventing you from killing your neighbors, no matter how annoying they are or how early on Saturday morning they insist on mowing the yard. There may be circumstances under which society chooses to allow you to end your life. I believe there are. But the subject is a legitimate one for public debate and public policy, not a right with which the government has no authority to meddle. Establishing a right to end your life at any point where you feel it is no longer worth living would make suicide a right for all people, not just those with terminal illnesses. Remember, most people who kill themselves are not terminally ill.

Second, most suicidal people don't really want to die. The law has long allowed people to plead not guilty by reason of insanity for some serious crimes. Often this has included the concept of "temporary insanity." Why should an insane person not be found as guilty as a sane person committing the same act? Because they were in an abnormal mental state in which they were not acting rationally, did not understand the consequences of their actions, etc. Suicide attempts almost always occur in such an excited, temporary state. Once the crisis has passed, the suicidal person generally does not want to die, and is relieved that the attempt failed (although the do remain at risk for future crises). Establishing a right for such people to kill themselves will allow them to take an action that does not reflect their true wishes while they are not in their right minds. Doing so would be very bad policy indeed.

Third, in modern society, your life is not your own. You did not go out into the woods, clear the land with homemade tools, build your own house, make your own clothes, or grow your own food. Society has fed you, clothed you, and housed you. You do a certain amount of work, and receive tokens in the form of money which can be exchanged for a certain amount of work done by others. It is essentially a cooperative system, and is in no way morally equivalent to a pre-industrial radical individual "making a living" from the earth. Even such an individual generally did so with the help of a large family, who had legitimate claims on his time and labor. In today's world, that family is society as a whole. The state, as the organizing representative of society, has the right to tax your income, to regulate industry and agriculture for the public good, and to draft you into the armed forces and send you on a suicide mission if it deems such a mission necessary for its own survival. The State, to adapt a line from my father, brought you into this world, and the State can take you right back out. That will sound horrible to many people, but a world without state authority is a world in which warring tribes kill each other over the last scrap of bread. Vacationed in Mogadishu lately?

Preventing people from hastening their demise when they are suffering from terminal illness is very bad policy. So is the prohibition of numerous psychoactive chemicals, and any number of other policies I could think of. But good policy is not a right. It is something that needs to be fought for, and worked out through the democratic process. What would constitute a good policy?

1. Terminally ill people and their families should be allowed to decide when they wish to refuse heroic measures to prolong life in favor of easing pain, and under certain conditions to take measures to end their lives rather than exist in agonizing pain, or in a permanent unconscious or vegetative state.

2. These conditions should be spelled out very clearly in law, rather than left up to doctors and the courts to sort out on their own.

3. These conditions should obviously be somewhat more restrictive when the decision is being made by a third party with power of attorney as opposed to the patient.

4. It should be perfectly clear that the policy does not apply to people who are not terminally ill.

5. Doctors should be able to discuss these options with patients and their families when asked. But such discussions should be initiated by patients and their families, not by medical professionals. (If a doctor ever offers to kill me, I swear I'll do the bastard in first no matter what condition I'm in)

When Tom DeLay's father lay dying after an accident in 1988, the family chose to discontinue medical care and allow him to die. The parallels with the Schiavo case are clear:
Both stricken patients were severely brain-damaged. Both were incapable of surviving without continuing medical assistance. Both were said to have expressed a desire to be spared life sustained by machine. And neither left a living will.

Hypocrisy? Certainly. But it also shows we are not as far apart on these issues as grandstanding politicians and the media frenzy they have engineered make it sound. DeLay says there's a difference between unplugging a ventilator and removing food and water. Perhaps. But I think the real difference in this case is that family members disagree about what should happen, while DeLay's mother says "There was no point to even really talking about it. . There was no way he [Charles] wanted to live like that. Tom knew, we all knew, his father wouldn't have wanted to live that way."

If Schiavo had clearly stated her feelings about this to everyone, there would be no controversy. So part of our difficulty with this issue may simply be that we live in a society that chooses to deny the inevitabilty of death and constantly lies about the human condition in the inane hope of creating a sanitized world "safe for children." But another part, I believe, is Americans' overuse of arguments based on the logic of individual rights. In a brilliant Worldview interview on the topics of economics, government efficiency and why Canada has such a great quality of life(I'll post the address when it gets posted online), Joseph Heath argued that America was an experiment in what happens if you value liberty over all other social values. He describes it as a sort of cautionary tale for everyone else to observe and learn from.

Liberty and individual rights are not the relevant values for a discussion of end of life health care issues. Compassion and the alleviation of suffering are far more relevant. When we move the discussion from the realm of rights to the realm of compassion, we will find we are not so far apart after all.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Red Lake Blues

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A makeshift memorial at Red Lake Senior High School

I hate to harp on a theme - who am I kidding, I love to repeat myself. At any rate, I was so pissed off at a National Public Radio report on the Red Lake Ojibway Reservation school shootings on Friday that I felt I must write something. "Explanations" I have heard for the shootings: Violent video games and Internet hate sites and chat rooms somehow infected or possessed young Jeff Wiese with "violence." The isolation and poverty of life on a closed reservation. The loss of Indian cultural identity due to the disappearance of the Ojibway language and the influence of American popular culture, including (I couldn't make this shit up) baggy pants.

I resent the fashion trendmakers who have turned plumbers' crack into a fashion statement as much as (more than) the next guy, but come on, people. Baggy pants don't turn people into mass murderers, any more than Grand Theft Auto or Insane Clown Posse CDs do. (Althought they do make it easier to hide a handgun, hence their popularity among the young and gang-affiliated).

From what I heard about the kid's posting on an internet, it was clear that he was depressed and plagued by thoughts of death and suicide. And what he did, in fact, was kill himself. He just wanted to hurt as many people as he could on the way down, so he killed a bunch of other people too.

Suicide, as I mentioned the other day, is usually the result of mental illness. and Jeff Wiese quite obviously suffered from a chronic mental illness for which he was not receiving treatment. By now we should understand that mental illness is brain disease, and has no more of a moral component than do heart, lung, or liver disease, and often less so because of the role smoking, drinking, and drug abuse can play in the development of those diseases. After a death in the family, some people recover, others experience prolonged periods of depression. When soldiers go into battle, some come down with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, most do not. These differences result from variations in genetics and life experiences, and are in no way moral flaws. Some forms of mental illness are heritable. Jeff Wiese's father, as the NPR story failed to mention, killed himself.

From the Stone Age onward, superstition has attributed mental illness to demon possession. Cavemen used to drill holes in mentally ill peoples' skulls to let the bad spirits out. The tendency in our society to blame culture, video games and the internet for behavioral disorders is a modern expression of this "posession" idea. It's garbage.

Mental illnesses are diseases like any other, and diseases for which our ability to treat and manage has advanced tremendously over the past few decades. Yet this treatment is not available to everyone. Insurance companies refuse to pay for mental health care the same as other kinds of health care, and the government will do nothing about this, or about the fact that nearly fifty million Americans do not have health coverage at all. Meanwhile, the majority of homeless men sleeping in the park, in the shelters or under Wacker Drive share a single illness, schizophrenia.

Yet we continue to think of mental illness as something demonic rather than physical. President Bush calls Saddam Hussein a "madman." A dear friend of mine, refusing to accept the concept of evil, says Hitler was just "insane." Mental illness can be simplistically defined as problems with behavior or mental processes which prevent effective personal and social functioning. A person able to impose his will on an entire society is functioning very well, thank you, and thus should not be considered mentally ill. "Madmen" do not take over nations. Strong willed, ambitious, focused, and morally reprehensible people often do.

But Evil has little to do with mental illness. Neither do demons, video games, or reprehensible Internet sites which glorify violent death, such as, occasionally, this one. My fuzzy but amoral cranial co-inhabitant's remark that he'd rather go out "Quaeda style" (BOOM!) than Schiavo-style is not going to cause an otherwise healthy young person to blow up the school. (I simply meant to point out that giving your life for a cause wraps up all those nagging existential questions - what's is all for?, why do I have to die? etc - into a neat little package. For the record, I consider Muslim fundamentalism, any kind of fundamentalism for that matter, to be a particularly stupid and worthless cause. If there is a God, I'm pretty sure he does not want you to blow yourself up, you morons.)

Why did the Red Lake massacre happen? Because a boy was sick, and nobody would help him. If we want to prevent future Red Lakes, future Columbines, we can start by demystifying mental illness, and to provide adequate health care to all those who suffer from it. Not to do so would be madness.

Some Thoughts on Easter

They’re telling you it’s Easter Sunday, the stone rolled away and the tomb found empty, but you know that ain’t the truth. It’s Friday, and that old boy’s still hanging up there on the cross, limp now, bloodied and still as the last light dies in the sky. But Sunday’s coming.

It’s Friday, and a chill still sits upon this land, the trees still bare, a bitter wind sends us crawling back inside even on a sunny afternoon. But Sunday’s coming.

It’s Friday, and soldiers kill and die and torture in distant lands, all in the name of the freedom being stolen from us in our sleep by corrupt and deceitful rulers who care only for the interests of the wealthy few. But Sunday’s coming.

It’s Friday and kids are kicking trash around the crumbling playlots in their forgotten neighborhood with their asthma and their lead poisoning and their missing fathers and their crowded failing schools, while their pale, hidden safe from the truth behind the fortress walls of their gated communities stuff their faces with candy as they learn to thank their God for all the good fortune that power and privilege have stolen for them. But Sunday’s coming.

It’s Friday, and around the world millions die of AIDS, of hunger, and from preventable diseases all but forgotten in the lands of the rich and powerful, as the ruling classes in their SUVs talk of feeding tubes and basketball and desperate housewives and the indignities of paying $2.49 for a gallon of gasoline ripped from the dying lands of subject peoples. But Sunday’s coming.

It’s Friday and the curse of Babel keeps the world in chains as the people gather in ignorant camps, Serb and Croat, Palestinian and Israeli, Hindu and Muslim, Hutu and Tutsi, Black and White, Mestizo and Indian, back to back in their pathetic circled wagons, preferring death to the shame of compromise. But Sunday’s coming.
Sunday’s coming and with it will rise a new heaven and a new earth. But there can be no waiting this time for the old boy to roll away the stone. This stone only you can move. Rise, you magnificent, miserable bastards. Rise and walk!

Friday, March 25, 2005

Live Green or Die

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The garage-top garden at the Sullivans' green three-flat in Rogers Park

Many people I know, especially Bob, are hopping mad about the vote in Congress to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. I haven't touched the issue, just as I've turned away from blogging about war and global politics since the election. It makes me too angry and depressed to talk about what our national "leaders" are up to, and I prefer to save my energy for things that I can do something about, or at least are relevant to my daily life. But maybe that's a cop-out. Bob writes:
    • The United States has only 3% of the world's oil reserves, yet consumes 25% of the world's oil production. There is simply no way to drill our way to "energy independence".
    • The EIA estimates that almost 60% of energy burned in the United States is wasted. By becoming more fuel efficient, the U.S. could eliminate the need to import oil from unstable regions of the world. A sound, comprehensive energy policy for the U.S. would invest heavily in renewable energy and energy efficiency technology to produce safe, clean energy and good, high-paying jobs.
And let me be the first to say, I've wasted way more energy than you have this winter. In some ways our old house is the opposite of green. With its leaky doors and windows, lack of insulation, and bathroom fan duct basically open to the outside, the house might as well be made of paper as far as energy efficiency goes. So we have a lot of work to do if we want to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

In contrast, the other day I read in the Reader about the Sullivan family, who have turned a 90-year old three flat up in Rogers Park into the first privately owned multifamily dwelling anywhere to be declared Energy Star compliant. I have never been able to get at Reader articles online - if somebody out there knows how, please help me. But I've found plenty of other information about the building online. While the million-dollar plus cost of this rehab is obviously beyond most people's means, many of the ideas they used can be adopted by almost anyone. Putting a garden on the roof and on top of the garage to reduce the "urban heat island effect" is a fairly easy and attractive step to take, for example. And they have really built a better mousetrap in terms of insulating bare brick walls. Any homeowners out there in Blogistan should check it out.

Not that the greenest thing they did was simply not tearing the building down. It consumes a lot of energy and resources to build a building, not to mention a lot of trees for timber, etc. By refitting what was already there, they stretched out the useful life of the building, spreading the initial investment in energy out over two centuries instead of just one.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Death and the Bunny

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HR: You dance around the issue, man. Out with it. Pull the plug or not? How do you wanna go out?
EG: You first.
HR: I'm not going out in no hospital, dog. If I know I'm gonna buy it soon, I'm going to dress up in a black ninja suit, and spend my last weeks hunting down and destroying every bastard who done me wrong. If the cops find me, I'm gonna blow myself up, Quaeda style. Hyaaeh! Boom! Take that, swine!
EG: That's, um, inspiring, man.
HR: Your turn.
EG: I'm thinking I might pack a few days of food and water and walk off into the Utah desert alone, try to find God one last time.
HR: Again? Give up, man. He's so not into you.
EG: You think?
HR: I know. He couldn't give a shit what happens to you. Look around.
EG: I suppose you're right. So, revenge?
HR: Unless I'm old and weak. Or, you know, my enemies have already tasted my wrath and all that.
EG: Outliving your enemies is the best revenge?
HR: No, I can think of much better. There's impalement, for starters, and public humiliation . . .
EG: Maybe I'd just want to spend me last days in the place that feels most like home to me.
HR: A bar? Good idea. Instead of being strapped down on a morphine drip, we could just OD on . . .
[in unison]: Whiskey.
HR: Now that's what I call death with dignity.
EG: Buy you a shot?
HR: Any time, anywhere.

More Schiavo

The post on Terry Shiavo provoked so much response from people that I feel like milking it some more. Nothing like the suffering of others to drum up attention for yourself and your ideas. Just ask Tom DeLay.

So I'm going to bring you a few thoughts from other people. I don't necessarily agree with these thoughts, I just thought they were well written.

Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune:

The Schiavo case is only slightly more consequential [than the flap over University of Illinois mascot Chief Illiniwek]. A few people--the woman and her family--will feel a direct impact whichever way it goes. But for the rest of us who have never met or seen the main players, this, too, is just another skirmish in the culture war.

One side sees those who want her feeding tube pulled as part of a larger, secularist effort to undermine the religious notion that human life itself is, without qualification, uniquely sacred. A denial of that absolute truth leads the way toward utilitarian policies--laws based on ever-changing evaluations of what works--and erodes the legitimacy of moral policies--laws based on what's objectively and eternally right.

The other side sees those who want to keep Schiavo alive despite her wretched, unconscious existence as fundamentalist control freaks. They see them making a fetish of all human life-forms down to tiny clumps of embryonic stem cells primarily because the idea of absolute and transcendent truth is a lever used by those who claim to know it to impose their religious values on society.
I think he's right in analyzing the debate, that two politicized groups in society are arguing about the case only in terms of their broader social agendas, without much concern for the actual people involved. But there are real poeople involved, and there are real, complicated ethical issues to deal with surrounding the end of life: issues which can't be boiled down to blather about "rights" or "sacredness." Real life is more complicated than ideology. The people who have to make these kinds of decisions (and someday that's likely to be most of us) find them agonizing to make and often difficult to live with.

John Kass, also of the Chicago Tribune:

And now she has new champions who are comfortable with words like fetus and viability. Some use Schiavo to ridicule people of faith. Others use her to argue that only those who want Schiavo's death are her real supporters. By this reasoning, if you don't want her dead, then you don't really love her. But this is love as mercy killing. It is by this love that the state allows the killing of unborn babies. It is by this love that the state gives permission to kill the infirm.

I'd rather consider a photograph of Terri and her parents, her mother stroking her face, and Terri's eyes looking up at her, almost smiling, perhaps involuntarily. Perhaps she feels nothing, but her parents feel it. They want to care for her and should be allowed to. But the law says no, the state has decreed, and hands are clean.

I wouldn't want to live that way. And I'm writing something down to inform my wife that if I am ever like that, they should let me die. But there was nothing in writing for Terri. And her parents want to care for her. Still, she's being killed.

For Kass, much of this is tied up in his anti-abortion stance. But not all of it. He admits he wouldn't want to live as a vegetable, but is frightened by the prospect that she (or he, presumably) might be "put down" by someone acting in her name but not in accord with her true wishes, while she is incapacitated. I share this fear, and sympathize. But I'm not sure why he believes the parents and not the husband. People seem to be assuming that whoever is taking the same side they are taking must be telling the truth. There is no rational reason to believe that's the case. I don't know any of these people, do you? For what it's worth, I'm sure my wife would better know my wishes than my father would. In fact I'd bet on it.

I'm not sure Kass understands the implications of her family "wanting to care for her." I think they can't let go of her and want to keep having her in their lives in some form. She may not be there anymore, but they are not perpared to deal with it. Their stance seems to have more to do with their emotional needs than with their daughter's - I doubt she has any.

Garret Keizer in Harpers:

Assuming that one’s life might be taken as the most private of all forms of property, one might also assume that the option for assisted suicide would resonate most powerfully with conservatives. But to make that assumption would give too much weight to ideology and too little to the psychology that informs it. The right talks about protecting life and tradition, but on some level—the level, let’s say, where someone like Dr. [Lloyd] Thompson is held up for derision—it is mostly interested in protecting pain. For two reasons.

The first is theological: the belief that pain holds the meaning of life. Supposedly, and demonstrably, this is a Christian idea, though if Jesus himself had believed it, he would have told the lepers to find meaning in their sores. The fact is, with even a little encouragement, most lepers do. This explains the conundrum so perplexing to the liberal mind: why hard-pressed people can vote against their own interests in support of someone like George W. Bush. How can they not see? In fact, they do see; they see from the same point of view that has led them to believe that the misery of their lives is the foundation of their integrity.

The second reason, which can always be counted on to exploit the first, is political: the belief that pain is fundamental to justice, which makes perfect sense if justice is conceived as nothing more than a system of punishments and rewards. The essence of punishment is pain. Whoever owns pain owns power.

The suicide, the mystic, the woman who seeks an abortion, the cancer patient who smokes a joint (the cancer patient’s long-suffering lover who smokes a joint)—all are roundly condemned for their escape from “responsibility” but truly feared for their escape from jurisdiction. It is a fear with a long and traceable history. The Roman emperor Tarquin crucified the bodies of citizens who committed suicide in order to escape his tyranny. When Margaret Sanger began her campaign for birth control, she was accused of permitting women to escape their God-ordained sorrow in bearing children.

As I've stated elsewhere, I don't buy the "life as private property" line. For one thing, to an agnostic such as myself, there can be no distinction between you and your life. Since I haven't seen any evidence of a separate soul, I'm working on the assumption that the death of the body is the end. So we're not talking about something you own, we're talking about you. The destruction of the self is something that should be avoided in most situations, even if it requires physically restraining people to keep them from harming themselves.

End of life issues are different, however, in that death is immanent no matter what is done, so it becomes a question of how to die, rather then whether to die. This is a more complicated question. Clearly the last few minutes of agonizing pain are worth less than other minutes in many circumstances. Even more clear is the case of the unconscious person who has no chance of regaining consciousness. If no more of life is going to be experienced by someone, in some way isn't that person already "dead?"

I do believe that these decisions should be made by dying people, their families, and their doctors. But we must be very careful to allow this in a very narrow, specific set of circumstances so as not to blur the issue of suicide in general. Most suicide is the result of mental illness - depression is a disease, with a biological basis, just like cancer or anything else. Talking about the "right to die" of a depressed person is just as inane and Orwellian as the "right to die" of an AIDS patient - both would prefer to live and be healthy, to the extent that such is possible. So we cannot change the legal structure in such a way as to prevent law enforcement from intervening in suicide attempts. Such a policy would be criminal negligence, and an affront to human dignity. And you know Tom DeLay would have a field day with it. So let's just not go there.

Still, I find Keizer's discussion of the motives behind the Right's extroardinary efforts here to be very interesting. Suffering can be enobling. It can be transformative, in fact, if faced with the proper perspective. But Congressional Republicans should remember that people are rarely grateful when you force it on them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Fugitive

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Scofield Kid: I guess they had it comin'
William Munny: We've all got it comin'

- Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven, 1992

All right. Since it's been all over the national news, I feel like I should comment. Yes, the maintenance guy at our church was arrested yesterday. Turns out he was really an escaped murderer from Massachusetts, a fugitive for the last 20 years. No, I didn't know him. I didn't even know he worked for the church.

Now that I've seen pictures of him other than the scary old mug shot in the paper, I realize that I've seen him read. Back when I had more free time in my life, I used to go hang out at poetry slams and other performance poetry events. And until yesterday, everyone who know James Porter in Chicago knew him as J.J. Jameson, poet and peace activist. He was good, if you're into that whole performance thing. Colorful.

In 1961, at the age of 21, he shot and killed a 22-year old named John Pigott. About a year later, during his first escape from jail, he and another inmate overpowered, shot and killed David Robinson, the jail master. He was quickly recaptured. He had served a total of about 26 years behind bars when he escaped again in 1985. Hard to get my head around really.

Not to excuse or minimize what he did as a young man, but it seems like a damn shame our society is so focused on meting out "justice" (meaning revenge) that we focus on punishing people rather than rehabilitating them. The fact that he lived in peace as such a contributing member of our community for 20 years indicates that Mr. Porter was eminantly rehabilitatable. (Is that a word? It is now.) I don't know what was going on in the first two decades of his life that brought him to the point of violence, but in the 45 years since then he has seemed to be a good citizen. Even before his escape, he became a model prisoner, earning a degree from Boston College, starting a magazine and publishing poetry in prison. When he finally got the opportunity to be a free adult, he used his time and talents as well as anybody else I know. You can say "He didn't deserve that opportunity, but there you go again, talking about the individual instead of society. My question, instead, would be, will it do anybody any good locking him up? I doubt it.

How does society benefit from locking him up for the rest of his life for something he did when he was 20? I'm no anarchist - I believe the police power of the state must be deployed against a broad range of criminal behaviors in order to make peaceful social life possible. I'm influenced enough by Hobbes that I've called myself a "Leviathan Liberal" before (nobody got it). But all this extreme punishment - the electric chair, life in prison - doesn't seem to recognize that people change and grow. And when we do let people out, we give them no support, and they are effectively barred from many kinds of work. In the same neighborhood as the church, one former gang kid who got out of jail came back to the neighborhood and lasted four days before he was shot dead. Four days.

The way we treat criminals is the same as the way we treat our "enemies" abroad. We use this childish paradigm of black and white hats - locating Evil in them and Good in ourselves and the communities we try to defend. Real life is not that simple. The struggle between good and evil is within people, not between them. When we start looking at people and saying, "how can we live together? Is there a place for you in our world? What can you contribute?" we'll be getting somewhere. Singling out some people as evil is missing the point. We've all got it coming, as Brother Clint says.

What "J.J. Jameson" has contributed is, principally, The Puttering Penis, which is more joy than most people give me in a lifetime. So I sort of wish he hadn't been caught.

Home Run Rat Race

And you though things couldn't get any worse for Cubs pitching? Now it looks like reliever Joe Borowski is out for at least six weeks. Add that to the fact that the Cubs don't even have a real closer, and you've got real trouble.

Cubs pitching aside, the big winner so far this week is Major League Baseball, because nobody's paying attention to it. Sports fans are rivetted by the NCAA basketball tournament, and Congress with its 24-hour news cycle attention span has moved on to obsessing about Terri Schiavo as its latest ploy to distract attention away from the president's horrific budget. These ploys have distracted even me, although some time this week I intend to tackle the budget here no matter what's happening in the So Called News Media.

So baseball's getting a free pass. And I can't attack it with even the pretend fairness I bring to everything else. Even as I write this I keep glancing over at my Mark Prior-signed baseball for support. I don't want to be objective, reasonable, or critical. I just want upper deck seats the the World Series at Wrigley Field. But the question that was burning in everyone's mind for a couple days last week before the Illini game seemed to erase all memory of it is still bothering me. Was 1998 a lie?

After labor troubles cancelled the 1994 Series, fan interest in baseball bottomed out. People didn't care so much, probably because they realized how many players, managers, and owners were selfish, mercenary brats with no loyalty to anybody. But the summer of 1998 brought people back to the game, mostly because of the "home run derby" between Mark McGuire of St. Louis and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs, in which they both smashed all previous home run records and McGuire ended up with the astounding new record of 70 in a season.

And now it looks like the reason both players hit so hard that year was because they were shooting performance enhancing drugs. "So what?" some people ask. "Why don't we let them all take whatever they want and play as well as they can? It's exciting that way."

Here's why it's important. The flaw in the American character is the Cowboy. Not actual cowboys, mind you - it's just as honorable a way to make a living as any other way. I mean the Cowboy as a state of mind - the lone man alone on the plains, living by his own lights, accountable to no one but his own code of honor. You can't really live like that. Without society and the state, we're all just a bunch of barbarians. Do you have any idea what the murder rate was in the Old West? Or in 1870's San Francisco? It was worse than the movies, becasue there were no white hats, just thugs. It has to be that way. If your neighbors are willing to use violence to get what they want, you have to do so as well, or else you lose. You can argue self defence, but your neighbor probably would, too. Social life just doesn't work without rules. Americans like to believe in "Enlightened Self-Interest" and the idea that if everybody does what's best for themselves, you'll get the best outcome for everybody. Which is about the stupidest thing I've ever heard. In the absence of rules, what's best for me is stealing all your stuff and beating you up if you try to stop me. For instance.

News Flash: Steroids are bad for you. They cause heart attacks, cancer, and shrink your balls down to the size of peanuts. And if one guy is all hopped up on them, how is everybody else supposed to compete with him if they're not taking the drugs as well? Is that what we want to tell the teenagers practicing in the ball field at Roberto Clemente High? "You, too, can be a ball player someday if you work hard, believe in yourself, and shoot yourself full of dangerous chemicals." How inspiring.

I love baseball. I want to love Baseball. The 2001 Series in which the Diamondbacks showed up those damn arrogant Yankees, the Cubs' miraculous 2003 run, the Red Sox winning the Series at last, those are some of the most inspiring things I've ever seen. But the money, the politics, the corruption, and yes, the cheating - and most of all Baseball's inability to come clean about it and change its ways - these things are starting to turn off a lot of people. My patience grows thin.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Terri Scenario

Starbuck: I thought you were dead.
Apollo: I thought you were in hack.
Starbuck: It's good to be wrong.
Apollo: You should be used to it by now.
Starbuck: Everyone has a skill.

I've been meaning to write something about the Schiavo situation for some time now but I've just been too busy. Which is a lucky break for me, because I've been dead wrong.

My gut reaction was "oh, great, they've found something else to beat us up with. Look at the elitist bullies who don't value human life wanting to pull the plug on this poor defenseless woman so her cheating husband can remarry." Because this is what happens when your opponents control the agenda. They pick the battlefields to make you look as bad as possible. This case is definitely not where right-to-die proponents want fight this battle. For one thing, there's no clear documentation of what the patient would have wanted, with conflicted stories being yelled rather than rationally discussed, and the whole thing being fough out by lawyers, none of whom really represent the patient, for obvious reasons.

Understand that I come at this from a strange perspective for an American. For once, I don't have a dog in this fight. There's never going to come a time when I beg for death, not even if the Constitution is changed and George W Bush wins a third term as President. Don't talk to me about my suffering being too great to go on. Please. I was raised in New Jersey.

On the other hand, I find the whole debate about death to be terribly dishonest and farcical. It's your right to "decline treatment" but not "kill yourself," and food counts as "treatment?" Come off it already. And this debate in the paper about whether starvation is a painless death? Get a grip. It's the only one that's legal. You want something you're sure won't cause suffering? Shoot her in the head at close range. That's pretty damn painless. Too barbaric? How about an overdose of something fun. An ecstasy/heroin cocktail? The opposite of suffering.

But we don't even want to talk about death, about the shot clock running down for all of us. So this becomes about refusal of treatment, and not about death. And there may be good reason for this. When I worked at a suicide hotline, the fact that suicide is technically illegal allowed me to call the police in cases where someone was threatening to kill themselves, or had already ingested an overdose. Since most suicide attempts are made during a temporary, extreme mental state brought on by an underlying mental health condition, in every case I remember the person involved was grateful afterward for being rescued. Death wasn't really what they wanted. And if we all had an unconditional "right to die," death is what they would have gotten.

On the other hand, should hopelessly terminally ill people be forced to keep living if they don't want to? If they are no longer able to do the things they valued in life? Why? And what about this "persistent vegetative state" thing? What is it? How is it different from being "brain dead?" Why hasn't anybody made a zombie movie spoof called "Brain Dead" yet? Or did I miss it?

I find myself completely unable to answer these questions. And if I can't answer them, then I'm pretty sure Tom DeLay can't answer them either. But at the very least, I thought it was good politics for Republicans.

Boy, was I wrong. At least if you believe the ABC News poll published on Monday. Seventy percent of those polled said that congressional intervention in the case is inappropriate, while 67 percent said they believe lawmakers became involved in the Schiavo case for political advantage rather than the principles involved. Furthermore:
Sixty-three percent of those surveyed in the ABC poll said they support the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube.

Among two core Republicans constituencies, 54 percent of conservatives said they support removal of the tube, while evangelical Protestants divide about evenly with 46 percent support.

According to the poll, conservatives and evangelicals also were more likely to support federal intervention in the case, although the support did not reach a majority in either group.

Whoops. Both on my part, and on the part of Republican strategists. We both seem to have underestimated the extent to which Americans just don't want the government to butt into their personal business, their family disputes, or their health care decisions (remember "Hillarycare?"). The public's reaction to all this can be summed up as "Don't Tread on Me."

Sometimes I love this country more than I can express in words. I haven't been this proud since reading Justice Kennedy's opinion throwing out sodomy laws, which also brought patriotic tears to my eyes.

Even some Republicans are starting to have doubts about the Schiavo situation. From today's Tribune:
Though some GOP strategists have argued that the issue is a political winner for the party because it appeals to religious conservatives, other Republicans warn that the bold maneuver risks alienating swing voters as well as Republicans worried about government invasions of individual privacy.

"It goes beyond shameless politics," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "It becomes a more crystallized proof point that we are no longer the party of smaller government. We have become a party of 'It doesn't matter what size government is as long as it is imposing our set of values.' "

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), before voting against the bill Bush later signed, asked: "How deep is this Congress going to reach into the personal lives of each and every one of us?"

Still, some Republican analysts say the immediate poll results — and the concerns raised by Shays and others — are not politically significant because the activists pushing to keep Schiavo alive care more passionately than those opposing that view.

It's good to be wrong.

Just one other thought on the case, because I feel I haven't quite been controversial enough today. This case exists at all because of a dispute between Terri Shiavo's husband and her family of origin over what her wishes would have been. So if Terri were gay, there would never have been a case, because her partner would have no legal right in Florida to have a say in her treatment decisions. Chew on that one for a while.

Monday, March 21, 2005

"They use fragmented forms to express the anomie of contemporary life"

A few weeks ago I asked, "can modernism be stopped?" So far the answer appears to be, "apparantly not." In fact, once again the Pritzker Prize goes to yet another architect of ugliness and despair. Think I'm eggagerating?
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Although Pritzker winners have included several members of the architectural avant-garde, Mayne has been considered one of the most polarizing figures in architecture. His verbal battles with clients and builders are legendary in the profession. And there is nothing traditionally beautiful or explicitly welcoming about his designs.

"I'm interested in conflict and confrontation," Mayne said.

His buildings, often cloaked in canted or folded metal screens, giving them a dramatic silver-gray cast, have a muscular presence. They use fragmented forms to express the anomie of contemporary life — and of sprawling, centerless Los Angeles in particular.

"There is a real authenticity to the work that we liked," said Gehry, a member of this year's Pritzker jury. "There's no denying he has carved out his own path and hasn't strayed from it. He's not copying anybody else."

So instead of trying to do something about "the anomie of contemporary life" he's going to celebrate it, and make it that much worse. And yes, that's Frank Gehry, Lord of All that is Shapeless and Ugly, on the jury that gets to decide who will be honored for most monumental lack of taste each year. How wonderful for him.

The Pritzker family, after which the prize is named, is one of Chicago's most influential families, and almost certainly its wealthiest. They helped build this town, and now I guess they want to help build it again, only uglier this time.

Speaking of building Chicago, the crappy two-story commercial building, topped by a three-story billboard, that occupies the prime real estate between Marshall Field's and the Chicago Theater is coming down soon. While this alone should probably be cause for joy, it's being replaced by one of those characterless modern glass towers I hate so much. This is really a shame, considering how the rest of the neighborhood has been looking up recently. Old buildings are being rehabbed back into shape, and the areas new construction has been attractive and even exciting. The new condo tower going up between Marshall Field's and the Cultural Center, for example, is perhaps my favorite buildings in Chicago - the controversy of having the Mayor move to an address north of Madison for the first time since Cermak took power in 1931 aside (actually, didn't Jane Byrne briefly live at Cabrini?). Wow, that was quite a sentence.

Anyway, the new building at State and Randolph is terrible. There's no way to do a glass box and not have it be terrible, actually. The architect here tries, however, by leaving a big gap in the building to "break up" the monotony. Or something. The effect is actually to make the thing look like a half-played game of Giant Glass Jenga. Oh well, at least the billboard will be gone.

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Speaking of Modernism run amok, let's return for a moment to the new Pacific Garden Mission design by Stanley Tigerman. People are still gushing about it. Tigerman is known for being particularly interested in applying architectural desing to solving social problems (a refreshing change from Mayne, who just wants to celebrate our dysfunction). "It is not just housing for homeless people, it is housing designed to reintegrate them back into society, with green elements that will be uplifting for people on the bottom rungs of society," said Phillip Snelling, one of the Mission's attorneys, said in an interview last week. Oh, so that was the problem. Green space! Homeless people just don't get enough of the outdoors, I guess. You'd think they'd be sick of green space after a few weeks of sleeping in the park.

Don't get me wrong, I'm in support of building a new homeless shelter in the South Loop. I think it's needed. But it's always interesting to me how middle class reformers and idealists, from Jane Addams to the present, try to help the poor and desperate by either trying to make them more like us, or by giving them things the middle class wants. Jane Addams, for example, tried to introduce poor West Side immigrants to Shakespeare and opera and painting. Welfare reform tries to help poor families by getting single mothers of young children to participate in the craptastic service sector economy of Wal-Mart and Subway. Again, not that I have any opposition to Shakespeare or gainful employment, both of which I personally benefit from. But any time the haves give something to the have nots, I'm suspicious - the relationship is inherently a paternalistic one. This is often unavoidable but definitely uncomfortable for all parties. In social work, of course, you address this head on by working with clients to arrive at collaborative goals. But in designing programs or making large-scale investments, you're inevitably giving people something without giving them much choice about what that is.

Architecture ends up reflecting the values and priorities of the time in which it was built. Back in the age when the desperate poor were thought to need art and literature, buildings were flowery and tried to be beautiful. Even Sullivan, thought of as the pioneer of the modern office tower, included elaborate decorative detail. True, it wasn't reflected in the broad design of the building, but that was because it was on a human scale, not a grand scale. He preferred to decorate stairwells and light fixtures rather than giant stone columns. It was an architecture for democracy, not empire. Today's buildings continue to reflect the mantra of "simple, clean lines" and "open spaces." Perhaps our lives are so full of useless clutter we have come to value emptiness, simplicity, space.

I doubt most homeless people share that problem.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Plug

Okay, so I "steal" stuff here and post it. But I attribute everything I can and I think everything I do would fall under "fair use." I mean, if you can't respond to the news and discuss it, what good is it?

But our dear friends at the New York Times have pushed me to the edge. Again. Trope pointed out this article in today's times, about life's little annoyances or whatever. In it, Ian Urbina writes:
But even on less coordinated levels, shared frustration is often the augur of countercultural trends. Mr. Shepsle said he took great solace in discovering his irritations with Starbucks' lingo summed up on a popular T-shirt in Chicago. The shirt, which mocks the pretentiousness of a certain Chicago neighborhood, features two names. Next to Lincoln Park it says "Tall, Grande, Venti." Next to Wicker Park it says "Small, Medium, Large."

Now I don't know Mr. Shepsle from Adam, but I do know those shirts. They're from Letizia's Natural Bakery at Division and Leavitt. Letizia is an Italian immigrant and energetic proponent of cooking with butter. Her other big selling T says "Don't Partially Hydrogenate Me." Her son, Fabio, baked our wedding cake and was good enough to open the premises to all us neighborhood Kerry supporters for public debate-viewing and fundraising. He made a passionate speech about how he became a citizen so he could vote, how sad it was that people don't participate.

And their cookies are great.

So hey, Paper of Record, give them some credit. And please, write an article sometime about something I know about that doesn't contain a factual error or omission. Okay? Just one.

Hope Springs Eternal.

There were buds on the trees along Paulina today! It got up to 50 degrees in my part of town, I walked down the street without a hat for the first time in months! Well, the second time, but who's counting? Although it may be crappy again tomorrow, today I feel like spring is in the air at last! After the past winter, 50 feels like paradise. And with Opening Day still a couple weeks away, the Cubs are tied for first place! Undefeated!

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The past couple years we started the season with the feeling the Boys in Blue were gonna do something great. And they have, although both years they've kind of fallen apart at the end. This year it seems like they started to fall apart early, just to get it over with. It's not dumping Sosa - the guy was more trouble in the clubhouse than he was dynamite on the mound. It's that the owners - the Tribune media conglomerate - don't seem to want to make any sacrifices to win. I'm not expecting them to be Steinbrenner, but I wish they'd gone after Magglio Ordonez when the White Sox wouldn't pick him up. He really wanted to stay in town, and I thought he would have made a great Cub. Let's not even talk about Beltran. And Matt Clement? they didn't even try to pick up his contract, figuring they had more than enough pitching. Now with Wood and Prior injured, of course, the team is scrambling to put together a decent starting rotation.

So did they blow the season before it started? They don't care. They're gonna make a profit anyway. Why? Because I don't care either. Last year I dragged my ass to a sub-freezing Opening Day, and I'd do it again if I had tickets. I love the team, the town, and Wrigley Field is the best beer garden on earth. My complaint is that ticket prices have more than doubled since I came back to town in 2000. That year I got upper deck seats for ten bucks. Now it's more than twenty. And the Trib has it's own ticket broker to take advantage of scalpers' prices for themselves. I don't begrudge them the money necessarily. Last year's deal with the "rooftop owners" (the guys who live across the street and sell tickets so you can watch from the roof) netted the Trib $50 million, which they turned right around and used to hire Greg Maddux. Definitely worth it. So what I'm asking for is this - if they're going to charge like they're a real major league franchise, they should at least pretend like they want to win the pennant.

I also had some global political thoughts and stuff this week, but I realized the whole time I've been doing Windy City Blues I've said nothing about the war or the Middle East, stuff I used to rant about all the time. It doesn't seem to fit here, somehow. So I posted it over at the old blog instead. Check it out if you have time.

Monday, March 14, 2005

A Class Thing?

Walking to work this morning I stopped, as I always do, at the corner of Chicago and Paulina and waited for the light to change. I saw a young woman standing across the street, waiting to cross in the other direction. I know exactly who this woman is, I’ve seen her a couple times a week for over two years now. She works at Mr. Taco, a fine purveyor of burritos and potato and cheese gorditas where I frequently buy lunch. I also know roughly where she lives – I’ve seen her watching me out the window of a red brick three-flat on one of the back streets I park on when my usual spot is closed for street cleaning – it’s on one of the great lakes south of Chicago Avenue, I don’t recall which - either Erie or Huron or Superior St. No, I’m not stalking this woman, I just live here. It’s hard not to know who she is, she’s like four foot ten with a wide smile and a sunny disposition. Also she was one of my main coffee suppliers while I was on the juice. But I’ve never had a real conversation with her, not even about the weather or the Cubs (why oh why didn’t they go after Magglio?).

Now that I think about it, all the times I’ve been to Mr. Taco I’ve never seen small talk in English. With Spanish-speaking customers they chat away, but in English there’s not much conversation. Obviously with this woman her Spanish is much better than her English, and I don’t speak Spanish at all (practically a disability in the neighborhood, it’s like being blind), but that’s not the whole story. She seems fluent enough to discuss snow in English, if not Kerry Wood’s nagging shoulder troubles.

I wonder if it’s a class thing. Chicago Avenue is a notable boundary street on the Near West Side. North of Chicago was a middle class/skilled working class enclave of former Soviet-bloc immigrants along with an increasing number of more successful Latinos. South of Chicago (the Great Lakes plus Ohio and Grand) was more downscale working-class and solidly Spanish-speaking. The last few years have seen an explosion of condo development North of Chicago as professionals have taken over the East Village, but while you’re starting to see more new construction to the South (West Town) it’s still predominantly working-class and Latino. The light changes, and we both cross the street without making eye contact, even though we clearly recognize each other.

Why don’t we say hello? Is there some unspoken rule about these things, or is it just me? If you live in Chicago you’ve noticed by now that the service industry consists disproportionately of white customers being served by Latino, and increasingly Asian, workers. Whites (including many European immigrants) work mostly at the trendier, high-tipping locales in the Loop, Lincoln Park and Lakeview. African Americans are rare in retail and food service, although very common in public services (City workers, the police, childcare, the postal service, teaching). Recent immigrants are the plankton of Chicago’s food chain. My own spin on why I don’t know the people who wait on me all the time is that part of me is embarrassed about being waited on all the time. So is it a class thing, or is it me? Does anyone else experience the same thing?

My brother would know Ms. Taco by now. I can remember taking a trip to Illinois for Christmas when we were both living in parts east. At the time we were running from place to place and were really not looking forward to going somewhere else and having to explain again what we were (not) doing with our lives. We stopped at a gas station late on Christmas Eve to buy coffee and stretch our legs. The convenience store was called Welsh Mart. We stayed there for half an hour or so while my brother flirted with a girl working late Christmas Eve at a gas station in Indiana. I was amazed by this behavior mostly because I’ve never done anything like that in my life. (Aside: it’s weird how my memory is so tied to objects. I think about this story often because up until last week I still used the Welsh Mart to go cup almost every day. This is why I keep so much clutter around.)

Today I didn’t go to Mr. Taco. Not just because I wanted to avoid awkward human contact, but also because the food is not healthy and I shouldn’t be eating it at all. Instead I went to an Asian place where the young waitress spoke more Thai than English. With this morning still on my mind I made sure to ask how her day was when she asked, pro forma, about mine. She seemed genuinely surprised. I guess there are rules about these things after all.

I sat down to what I hoped would be a pleasant half hour of cheap Thai food and reading about the latest triumphant news from the world of Illini basketball. Unfortunately, an older Asian woman at the next table spent the whole time holding a loud conversation on her cell phone. She sounded more like California than Bangkok and used lots of ditzy psychobabble like “toxic” and “passive aggressive.” Which, coincidentally, exactly described the mood she put me in. I was relieved when the call ended and she began a new conversation in German, which I don’t understand and can more easily ignore.

When I had a coughing fit a few minutes later, the waitress came over and suggested I eat all the hot chilies. “Good for cold,” she said. I did – they seemed to help. Almost as good at numbing my itchy throat as Chloraseptic, and much cheaper at the corner grocery (once I ran down to the corner to buy a chili I needed for my chili – and spent exactly 14 cents. Cheapest shopping trip ever.)

Usually when I post I have some idea what I think it all means, but in this case I don’t. Is there an unspoken rule about excessive social contact with the “help?” Would I feel more comfortable making small talk if these were white American women? Probably not. Pretty girls make me nervous and always have. It’s like walking by a house with a big barking dog in the yard, there’s a little voice in my head saying “don’t go there.” Yet we became very friendly with our waitress at Darwin’s while we were regulars there. Is that because Trope is better at meeting people? Or because our server was really an art student and independent filmmaker who is paying rent by tending bar, not really working class in the way a young mother working at a taco stand so inescapably is.

Or else it’s just me. The strange thing is, I don’t feel middle class. I was certainly raised that way, but in many ways I feel more the grandson of a steel worker than the son of an executive. For one thing, I’ve worked in factories for a living. I’ve sorted trash, too, for what it’s worth (I was the only white boy in the plant the day O.J. was acquitted – a story for another day). And while I have a “college job” now, those experiences change the way I see things when I walk down the street.

So am I ashamed of these asymmetrical social relationships? Is that why I don’t speak? I don’t know. I feel like I need a good reason, or at least an excuse, to talk to people I don’t already know. I’m not sure why. Maybe that’s some kind of class thing, too. What a sad life it would be if everybody else felt like they needed an excuse to speak to me.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Right Thing

Friday afternoon I'm sitting there at a hot dog and gyros joint at, the one those Mexican twin brothers run, at Chicago and Wood. Whichever brother happens to be working (who can tell?) Always makes me a big styrofoam cup of coffee with cream and sugar as soon as I walk in. But Friday I asked for lemonade, and got a huge cup full of weird tasting pink stuff. Strange and tangy stuff, tasting almost but not quite entirely unlike lemons.

What is it? I wondered. Has any of it ever been near a lemon? What's the sodium content? In short, is drinking this crap really any better for me than coffee? And what about lunch? The fries tasted much, much better than the pink substance did, but I knew they were high in fat and salt and bad for my blood pressure. And the cheeseburger was great as always. But healthy? In the end, I ate the cheeseburger, left the fries, but drank the pink stuff. What can I say, I was thirsty? You try to do the right thing, but you gotta eat something, and right now I gotta eat whatever it is and get back to the action in 20 minutes before people start doing things without telling me about them, leaving me to do damage control the rest of the day.

In the same way, it's hard for me to find the time to post anything at all these days, let alone take the time to do what the So Called Main Stream Liberal Media calls "fact checking." So mistakes are made, you know?

Anyway, a few weeks ago I made a crack about Preservation Chicago, implying that they weren't making such a good-faith effort at preserving Chicago neighborhoods. I even alleged that a prominent architecht on the board helped design a building to replace a historic landmark that the group was fighting to save.

The trouble is, I was wrong. Or rather I had them confused with the Landmarks Preservation Council, a completely separate and less militant group which I feel caves in too often and is more concerned about cultivating friends in high places than it is about saving historic Chicago from destruction. For the record, Preservation Chicago does great work and you should all give them lots of money right now.

The group was founded by a couple guys named Michael Moran and Jonathan Fine. The two staged an inventive protest before the demolition of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 2003, featuring women dressed as flappers and several 1930s automobiles. It didn't work, of course, but at least it woke up a broader swath of the public. They have been getting loud enough to make enemies, which is a good sign. This from the March issue of Chicago Magazine:
Jack Guthman, a lawyer who often represents building owners and developers, argues that the preservation movement has lost its sens of perspective. His most direct run-in with Preservation Chicago came a couple of years ago when Fine and Moran were battling to save a 19th Century house in the 900 block of North Pauline Street from demolition.
This was my neck of the woods, I was crushed when the house, one of the oldest structures left standing in Chicago, was demolished.
Guthman represented the developer, who wanted to build townhomes on the site; eventually the developer won.
It was three-flat condos, not townhouses, but why quibble? Because it's fun, that's why.
"In Chicago, we've gotten away from landmarking the best," Guthman argues. "Preservation Chicago and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois are comfortable with landmarking mediocrity. The mantra seems to be, 'If it's old, it ought to be saved'"
This attitude stems from the Modernist view of building as hero, bold, independent, innovative. Blah, blah, blah. Neighborhoods shouldn't be preserved as a tribute to the brilliant lone artists who designed them, it's not about that. It's the look, feel, and charm of old neighborhoods that were built back when people cared about atmosphere and appearances, and built on a human scale. The monstrous, brutalist condos being built on the rubble of the East Village may well be innovative and bold. But charming? Human?
Guthman claims "nostalgia is being landmarked, not quality," and he sees a particular danger in preserationists' growing fondness for landmarking whole districts at wonce. "It's a recipe for disaster for a city," he says. "If you're landmarking large areas of the city, then you will not have new development. . . Cities are either going to develop, or they're going to atrophy. If we'd had this broad-brush landmarking 50 years ago or 70 years ago, many of the buildings that are here now would not have been built.
One can only dream of such a beautiful possibility. A world without Mies?
What's more, Guthman says, "Preservation Chicago plays fawst and loose with the economic interests of others. They're not balanced - theyhave no concern or consideration fo other people's property rights."
Buddy, your right to use your money to make more money does not trump the public interest. That kind of thinking is exactly what's wrong with this country.
Fine and Moran have also been working in Logan Square, Hyde Park, Sheffield, and Lake View. They believe too much history has already been lost. "Chicago's architectural renaissance is over," Fine says. "I think that's one thing we fail to realize. It lasted from 1871 to about 1930, and it's quite disturbing to watch that renaissance be replaced by mediocrity. Chicago is looking less and less like Chicago and more and more like Anytown, U.S.A. There's good stuff going up in the Loop, it's the neighborhoods suffer most. Poor neighorhoods are suffering from fast-track demolition, and rich neighborhoods are choking on their own success."
I couldn't say it better myself, but I'm going to try anyway. The reason I want to preserve our neighborhoods is to keep alive the knowledge of how to build decent, livable places designed for people instead of cars, for that future day when the spirit of modernism in architecture is finally taken out back and shot like an old blind dog.

One more thing: Trope asked me to inform everyone that my last title was a reference to Nelson Algren who said "Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose." Personally I prefer to trust people to figure stuff out on their own, but I wouldn't want anyone to walk away thinking there is something wrong with Trope's nose. There is not - it is as cute as ever.

Friday, March 04, 2005

"Loving a Woman with a Broken Nose"

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Harvey: Yo, did you know today was Chicago's birthday?

EG: No, it's not.

HR: Well, it's the 168th anniversary of the city charter.

EG: It's not like no one lived here on March 3, 1837, and then suddenly a city appeared. It was a town before it was a city, and before that there was an earlier settlement that was massacred during the war of 1812. Before that . . .

HR: You're so tiresome sometimes with all your boring history. It's a birthday. A contrived opportunity to reflect on how far we've come, where we're going, that sort of thing.

EG: Like?

HR: Where we're going? We're nearly bankrupt, the schools suck, the mayor's acrually cutting back on the funds aldermen can use for road repair, meaning we're stuck with some of these potholes for at least another year . . . In this political climate, cities are doomed. Suburbanites have managed to keep resources bottled up in a few exclusive and exclusionary communities, the Bush Administration is gutting the Community Reinvestment Act, the whole city's about to sink back into the swamp.

EG: I doubt it. I think, while the city will never again control the majority of the population and the economy, it can hold its own just like anywhere else.

HR: Only if it can get a handle on expesnes, if you know what I mean.

EG: Not exactly

HR: Look, poor people cost too much. At least as a percentage of the population, you need fewer of them if the budget's going to balance.

EG: That's pretty heartless.

HR: That's self-preservation, man. If we're looking at a future where resources won't be redistributed across municipal boundaries, the city needs to attract wealthy people, and force poor people to leave. It's all about tax revenue. Those guys in New London have the right idea.

EG: Where the hell are people supposed to live?

HR: People meaning you, I suppose. You're not exactly pulling down Lincoln Park dollars, dog.

EG: I do all right. And why is that you're business? And when did you start talking like Max?

HR: I'm your nightmare, guy. Anywhay you know what I'm saying. The reason nobody's into your preservation BS is because those old houses are cheap to live in - nobody wants to live ghetto, not even you.

EG: There's enough room for everybody here. Can't we just lure new jobs here. . .

HR: You know that can't really happen while everything is funded by local property taxes. While businesses are making decisions based on competition between desperate local governments, the people lose. You know what's necessary. We need unrestricted state government power to override the local ninnies. Hell, the way things are now they can't even build a couple new runways at O'Hare.

EG: A "Robert Moses" solution? The power to redraw the landscape by fiat?

HR: But nobody's gonna vote for it. So if the city doesn't learn to compete and play hardball, it's doomed. In ten years, it's going to be a segregated dump.

EG: In ten years, this town is going to be a national model of urban recovery.

HR: It's gonna be a dump! You think community groups and marches against violence are going to save this? It's always going to be a divided city, and you're not going to be in the nice half. And you want to raise a kid here?

EG: Stop talking to me. You're not even real.
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Happy Birthday, Chicago

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

You Can't Trust the Media

Regular denizens of this blog ring will remember this post and discussion over at the Tally Ho, about how the New York Times getting a fluff story about lesbian kisses on Buffy wrong was emblematic of the paper's decline into fact free blathering.

I couldn't help but notice the big time media got it wrong again today. This time it was cable news giant CNN. Once again it's not a big point, but it's further proof that these people are even less likely to do basic fact-checking than I am. In today's story on the capture of the suspected BTK killer, CNN's Soledad O'Brien talked to Candice DeLong, a former FBI profiler about the latest:
O'BRIEN: They certainly want the challenge of that. He's been described -- Dennis Rader, the suspect, has been described as the president of his church, a good neighbor, people loved him. I mean, it is almost, frankly, a cliche.

DELONG: Right.

O'BRIEN: Quiet guy, everybody loved him. You're laughing. Why are you laughing?

DELONG: No, I'm just -- isn't it all just perfect? It made me think of John Wayne -- I'm laughing through my tears, by the way. John Wayne Gacy killed so many young boys, and it turned out he entertained children as a clown.

O'BRIEN: So then is it just typical of that -- I mean, I guess what people always want to know is, explain that dichotomy. How is it that someone could be -- if indeed this man is convicted, can be president of their church group and then also be facing sentencing or facing trial for...

DELONG: Involved in the activities that they're charged with.

O'BRIEN: Exactly. I mean, that, I think, is the hard part for the community to get their minds around.

DELONG: Well, it is hard. But I think we all have multifaceted personalities. We don't all have a secret life where we're killing when no one else knows.

It seems such a dichotomy, but these crimes, as we know, are almost always committed in private. And it's a very, very secret part of the individual's life that he or she is able to compartmentalize and just keep that little killing part of their life over here.

And then during the day, in their waking hours, many of these people are married family men. They're -- of course, we know of nurses and doctors that have been serial killers. And when they're not killing patients, they're taking very good care of them.

O'BRIEN: I'll tell you, much more is going to come out about this. I think it's just going to be fascinating to know what was at the end of the day behind -- behind all of this.

DELONG: Oh, I think so, too.

You've heard this discussion, using almost the same words, "quiet one, good neighbor, blah blah blah" trotted out again and again in the sensationalistic coverage of serial killers in the media. The problem here is, the story they're telling doesn't bear any resemblence to the truth. In fact, Rader's neighbors mostly couldn't stand the guy and though he was un uptight, nosy, powermad prick:

Most residents who lived near Rader described him as a bureaucratic bully, an ordinance enforcement officer for this Wichita suburb who often went out of his way to find reasons to issue citations.

One neighbor said Rader was once seen measuring grass in a front yard with a tape measure to see if it was too long. Another recalled catching Rader filming his house, documenting possible violations.
. . .
Rader, 59, moved into the neighborhood around 1976 and graduated from Wichita State University in 1979. Although he studied criminal justice, Rader never became a police officer, instead going into code enforcement, or what Reno called "a glorified dog catcher."
. . .
Bill Lindsay, 38, lived behind Rader and said something about the man unnerved him. Lindsay said his wife caught Rader in their adjoining backyards filming the back of their house.

"He really acted really funny," said Lindsay, a truck driver. "I'd be on the road and my wife would tell me, 'Dennis has been out again, taking his pictures.'"

"Nice guy, good neighbor, people loved him?" I know it's a small point, but I think it's important. It reveals the media telling the story they are prepared to tell, fitting details into a narrative they've already written, too busy following the script to even try to understand the truth. So he was active in his church, that doesn't mean he was a good neighbor and eveyone loved him. While they didn't suspect he was a serial killer, at least some of his neighbors thoght he was an insufferable ass. A little basic investigation would have revealed this.

I read in the paper a few weeks back about all the planning that has gone in to the news coverage of the Pope's death. What? you ask, He's dead? No, if he was dead, you wouldn't be able to avoid hearing about it, because a whole week-long media frenzy has been mostly pre-taped already. Interviews are on file, collages of his greatest hits, what have you, all lined up to go. Every time the guy coughs, an editor looks over the "Pope Dead!" story to freshen up the part that have gotten dated. This is exacly what happened when Reagan died. The media went into this whole "Nation in Mourning" frenzy, even though nobody really cared that much. Even to people who loved him, he'd been gone a long time. So most people just felt releived that Nancy could get some sleep now, whatever their politics. But the news media had already taped the whole damn story, and spent a lot of money on it, so damned if they weren't going to air it.

Too Much Coffee Man in Hell

Today my doctor told me I have to quit drinking coffee. That's like telling Popeye he has to quit eating spinach! Or making a tiger go vegetarian, perhaps. My regular doctor is out on maternity leave for the next few months. Her replacement spent all of five minutes with me before telling me my life needs to change. Apparently my blood pressure is too high and my entire cardiovascular system is about to explode like a water baloon, spraying the walls with a red mist, or something like that.

So she told me to exercise, lower the sodium in my diet, and [gasp] eliminate caffeine. Eliminate. Caffeine.

So I looked her in the eye and said, "I can't even tell you with a straight face that I'm going to do that.

"Soft drinks, or are you a coffee man?" she asked.

"Coffee." Of course. So she suggested my first cup be regular coffee, and after that . . . I can't even say it. I can't even type the "d-word".

Coffee is the nectar of my life. Coffee is passion and joy. Coffee is consciousness, it is courage and strength, it is the scourge of migraines and the bringer of clarity and wit. I am a machine for transforming caffeine into productive work, or at least into semi-intelligible political ranting. The coffee is the life. It consumes me as it makes me whole. Coffee makes me burn brightly. It enables me to speak. It draws me out of my shell and sends me gibbering incomprenesibly down the street. I love coffee. Black in the morning, weighed down by cream and sugar in the afternoon, steamed in a tiny porcelain cup after dinner, iced in a plastic cup from Dunkin' Donuts. Desire for coffee gets me out of bed in the morning and reminds me to leave the office and eat something for lunch. The coffee is the life. My master, my cause, my inspiration, my sustenance. my reason for being. Glorious, glorious coffee.

The luckiest woman in the world. Because her doctor lets her drink coffee. Bathe in it, in fact.

But what else can I do? I can join a gym. God dammit, I can sign up for Bally's or something, like the women of the house have done. I'll cut out junk food, I swear. I'll bring a sandwich and an apple to work every day in a dorky-looking lunch bag. I'll never eat at Mr. Taco again, even though the staff there pretend like they like me and mix the milk and sugar into my afternoon cup of *sob* I'll do anything I swear just don't take away my java and make me drink d... de ... aw hell I can't even say it.