Friday, September 11, 2009

The Fractured States of America

I start to write this having just come from a 9/11 memorial at the fire station, which is kind of ironic considering the subject material. That’s because September 11, 2001 was the day that brought us all together after a contentious 2000 presidential election, in which Al Gore won the popular vote but not the electoral vote. More than half the country had a president it didn’t vote for. Everybody was either Red State or Blue State. We weren’t America anymore. Things were starting to get a little ugly.

But that all changed when some extremist lunatics vaporized nearly 3,000 American civilians on a beautiful sunny Tuesday morning.

Suddenly, American flags were everywhere: on homes, on buildings, sticking out of car windows, hanging off of bridge overpasses. People were donating money by the millions to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations, to help the victims and their families. We were all a little more polite, a little more patient, a little more tolerant. I think we just didn’t know when a plane was going to scream out of the sky into our kitchen, and we didn’t want our last moments on Earth or the last impression on the people around us to be that of an angry jerk.

So we were all on the same page again, with the exception of some wack-a-loons who probably still think 9/11 was an inside job. We invaded Iraq, invaded Afghanistan, killed off most of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, caught and killed Saddam Hussein, bought houses and big flat-screen TVs, put magnets supporting our troops on the backs of our SUVs, and America was great again.

Then we figured out there was no way out of Iraq and that we didn’t do enough in Afghanistan. Then we had another election, and though that one wasn’t as close as 2000, it was probably more rancorous, reopening those Red State/Blue State wounds. Then gasoline went up over 4 dollars a gallon. Then we found out about secret prisons where the people we captured in Iraq and Afghanistan were abused and tortured. We still had no way out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and more and more of our soldiers were dying. We still hadn’t found Bin Laden. People started pointing fingers again. Then the economy tanked—big time—and that was the final straw. We found out that if you hit Americans in their pocketbooks, nothing else really matters. The gloves come off. The left blamed the right for allowing and encouraging all the corruption and greed in Corporate America. The right blamed the left for pushing into houses people that couldn’t afford mortgages, thereby nearly destroying the banking and real estate industries. The president at the time was on his way out, a lame duck who was not going to be able to do thing one about very much at all.

Enter the 2008 election. Now I will state up front that I voted for Barack Obama, but that I would have been, with the exception of knowing Sarah Palin was a 73-year old heartbeat away from the presidency, very comfortable with John McCain as president. I think he’s a good and decent man, just as I think Obama is. But people couldn’t see that. The campaign was broken down to The Empty Suit vs. More Of The Same. It was All Talk, No Action vs. the Grumpy Old Man. And when Obama won, it seemed that, finally, while not a landslide by any means, there seemed to actually be a general feeling of relief that it was over, and a chance for fresh start. Even the classy McCain tried to impart a spirit of cooperation with his concession speech, saying he’d work with the President however he could, and scolding those who booed.

Well, here we are less than eight months into BHO’s presidency, and any feelings of optimism and cooperation have been completely flushed down the toilet. We’ve gone Thelma and Louise into a divide that might not be able to be repaired. Ever.

And the evidence of having reached that divide is stark: I present the boorish behavior of Congressmen Joe Wilson of South Carolina and John Shimkus of—you guessed it—Illinois. During the President’s health care address to a joint session of Congress, Wilson shouted “You LIE!” in the middle of the speech, in front of the whole world. And Shimkus flat got up and walked out. Now, whether you agree with Wilson and Shimkus or not, those are just things you don’t do—at least, apparently, up until now.

Congressman Wilson apologized almost immediately, saying his emotions got the better of him. But a lot of people defended him, saying the breach of respect was justified. And how many of the Republicans who professed dismay over Wilson’s outburst were actually secretly wishing they had the church bells to do that? There was actually such little fallout because of his immediate apology and the President’s subsequent acceptance, that, in fact, the next day, Wilson said that while he stood by his apology, he defiantly said in a web video seeking campaign donations that he wasn’t going to back down from his attacks. Shimkus’s mouthpiece, meanwhile said the Congressman left after hearing the president repeat "an accumulation of rehashed talking points." Nice.

That’s certainly their Founding Fathers-given rights, but I fear the lack of consequences will further embolden those who believe Wilson and Shimkus were justified in their behavior and lead to a complete catastrophic breakdown of any remaining decorum in this country. I’m not just pointing at the right, either. When people on the left do it in the future—and they will—the right will naturally complain, but the excuse will be the ever-popular (and mature!) defense: “but you did it too!”

What bothers me most is that the number of people with whom you can have a logical, reasonable discussion about the issues is evaporating rapidly. It used to be that the only ideologues out there were politicians, old people and college students. But now you can’t talk to a soccer mom without discovering in about point-three seconds where she stands on health care, even if you’re discussing plans for the PTA fundraiser. (Here’s how any phone conversation with my dad can go, by the way—Dad: “So how’s everybody?” Me: “Pretty good. The girls have swimming coming up, and then we’re going to…” Dad [interrupting]: “Yeah, so how about that Nancy f*cking Pelosi. That’s one scary broad. You see what she and Harry Reid are trying to stick in that health care bill?” This is no exaggeration. Except for him interrupting. He might let me finish my sentence.) Either you’re right or you’re left, you’re right or you’re wrong, you goose-step to Rush or guzzle the Olbermann-Aide, and if you don’t agree with me, I’m going to yell at you and insult you until we part ways or come to blows.

And it’s making me very afraid of what’s next. Obviously, any civility or decency in a public forum is completely out the window. The town hall meetings on health care have been bad enough. But with Wilson’s scot-free verbal assault in the middle of the President’s address in the middle of the House of Representatives, it’s just going to get that much worse. You’re going to see a lot more personal attacks on not only our elected officials, but among other people in the room who are in disagreement. You’re going to see a lot more verbally along the lines of what you might have in the past only read in anonymous online comments. If there haven’t already been—and I suspect there have—you’ll see flat-out fistfights at these things. And what’s going to happen when the President makes an appearance somewhere—anywhere? After all, aside, perhaps, from a courtroom, church or funeral parlor, there is no place that’s even close to requiring the decorum expected inside the U.S. Capitol. So what happens when the President makes a campaign stop at a Chick-Fil-A on Main Street, USA? Are we going to see someone HERE throwing a shoe?

Or, perhaps, the unthinkable: someone throwing a bullet?

In fact, I made that comment just last night. I would not be surprised if, in the next three months, somebody takes a shot at him. And then, Katie Rose bar the door.

Somebody won’t go after him because he’s a Democrat. Somebody won’t go after him because of the Economic Stimulus Bill. Somebody won’t go after him because of health care reform. Somebody won’t go after him because of the silliness over his birth certificate. And somebody won’t go after him because he’s black, either, although that will likely be the perception, thus triggering a race war in this country that will make Watts look like a charity picnic.

Somebody will do it because his “emotions got the better of him.” And nothing is off the table anymore.

So to answer the long standing question posed by Rodney King in the wake of the L.A. riots, “Can’ t we all just get along?”—

No. No, we can’t. Sorry, Mr. King. And that means, like all great civilizations that collapse and die under the weight of their own corruption, greed and internal strife, the beginning of the end is, in my humble opinion, coming sooner rather than later for the Fractured States of America.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Last One

I rather wish I hadn’t used the title from the final episode of M*A*S*H (“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”) in an earlier blog post, because I think it would be fitting and proper to use those words here and now.

You see, this entry will be the final one for this blog; I have decided to retire from writing.

In fact, I’ve decided to retire from a lot of things, but primarily, I’m giving up on the putting of words to paper with the intent of having other people read them.

I enjoy writing, I really do. And I really wish I could make a living doing it. But it’s just not possible, not for me, anyway.

That’s why I’m going to stop writing on my blog, and I’m going to cease efforts to get my novel published. I think about things all the time—politics, philosophy, religion, sports, relationships, etc. And I think I have some pretty good things to say about all of them. However, it’s become overwhelmingly apparent that I just do not have the resources to market those things rattling around in my head.

I spent more than six years on and off writing my novel. I thought about it every day. I’ve thought about it every day since it’s been finished. I spent about a year sending letters and e-mails to agents. I’ve been trying to find a way the past two years to get to a conference, after finding out that’s the best way to get an agent to lay eyes on my work. But I just can’t do it anymore. It hurts too much to keep pursuing this dream. I can’t keep thinking, oh, if I can just get this thing published, our money problems will go away, and I can quit my job to write full time. I’ve got two more ideas for novels in my head, a play I started years ago, and ideas for two television series that I’d like to work on.

But then I think about the cost. Do I come home from work and hole myself up at the computer and bang this stuff out every night until bedtime, obsessing over this dream? Do I miss watching my kids do swim lessons and tee ball? Do I miss more talent shows and dance recitals because I’m off at conferences, spending money we don’t have?

For some career-driven parents or business entrepreneurs, those sacrifices are worth it. However, it’s not for me. I don’t want to be the dad whose kids wonder why everything else seemed more important.

I had one of those dads, and I know how it feels.

My dad wasn’t really career-driven, though; he would just rather lie on the couch and watch TV or work on his fishing boat than do stuff with me. I can remember a whopping two times growing up that we played catch. I would ask him to take me to the batting cages at Wright’s Barnyard, and he’d laugh and he’d say, “Yeah, right, get a job.” I remember in 8th grade when he sold our ski boat that we used on the lake by our little summer cottage to get that stupid fishing boat. I was crushed, but I tried to be optimistic: “We’re going to take that to the lake, right?” My dad laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. The fishing boat, I was told in no uncertain terms, was HIS, and was going to be used only for fishing trips. Never mind that we’d use our ski boat every weekend from Memorial Day until Labor Day, and lots of weekdays during summer vacation. That fishing boat was HIS, and it was only to be used the one or two times a year, when HE wanted to go fishing. (He even tried to enter a fishing tournament once—I don’t know if he had his own dreams of being Jimmy Houston or Al Linder—spending more time and money getting into that. He and his partner finished dead last. Didn’t catch a single fish.)

So I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to spend my time and money fixing up a shitty old fishing boat to use once or twice a year in lieu of doing things with and for my family.

For instance, do I spend about $500 and a few days away from my family so I can go to a writing conference so I can meet an agent or publisher about my novel, in hopes that MAYBE someone will want to work with me on it? Or, do I put that $500 toward a new play set or patio for my family, and spend those few days working on them? I have so much that I need to do and should do that I can no longer justify doing what I want to do. I don’t have infinite amounts of time or, more critically, money, to take care of the things that I need to do and try to further my own ambitions and dreams.

Part of the problem is that there are just so many things I want to do or try, I know there’s no way I’ll ever accomplish them. I obviously want to write. But I also want to learn to play the guitar and piano again. I want to be in a band. I want to coach football. I want to be back on the radio, hosting a show this time. I want to travel, and write about traveling. I want to cook. I want to learn to build things and fix things without having to ask for help. I want to golf—a lot. Of all the wants I have for myself outside of my children’s happiness, the only thing I’ve been able to accomplish is a well-maintained lawn.

So that’s why I’ve decided to retire from writing, as well as any other personal ambitions. I just have to put out of my head all of those things I want to do, because it just eats away at me day by day, little by little, that I can’t do any of them. I can no longer stand to be selfish, as I have been most of my life. My selfishness has just about cost me my marriage. I learned—probably too late—how to not think of myself first. The only things that matter to me are the smiles on my kids’ faces. Will any of my own personal accomplishments bring smiles to them? No. So why bother? I’d rather be lying on my deathbed regretting that I never became a full time writer than regretting I didn’t do more for and with my kids. I don’t know if my dad will regret anything on his deathbed—including moving a thousand miles away from his grandkids—but I doubt it. He doesn’t seem the regretful type.

Sounds like I need therapy, no? I probably do. But therapy would be for my own personal fulfillment, too, so that's not gonna happen. I really feel, however, in reaching this decision, like a large weight has been lifted from me. I no longer feel the crushing burden of carrying the load of all those things I want for only myself. I feel free. So at least there’s that.

Thank you to all who have read and commented on this here bloggy thing. I really appreciate you taking time to leave your thoughts, and for the kind words that some of you have said about me and my ideas and my writing.

Through all this, my philosophy hasn’t changed: have fun, do good.


Monday, April 6, 2009

The 2009 Cubs: Wake Me in October--Late, Late October

The 2009 baseball season is officially under way, and I, for one, couldn’t care less. You see, I’m a recovering Cubs fan.

These are actually heady times for Cubs fans—back-to-back playoff appearances, four or five overall this decade alone. The last time Cubs fans talked about that kind of postseason consistency was about the last time there was no corruption in Illinois government; roughly, never.

But many in Cub Nation are licking their chops at the prospect of a third straight division crown and another shot at fall glory.

Not me.

What was it George W. Bush said? “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, and you can’t get fooled again”? Whatever it was, I’ve been fooled way too many times as a fan of the boys in blue. I was born just three years after the Wreck of the Old ’69, so I never had to deal with that firsthand. I remember the Cubs teams of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s that featured players who were barely qualified to walk upright, let alone play pro baseball.

And then 1984 came. It was a magical year, a magical year. They got Rick Sutcliffe in June, and he proceeded to mow down the National League on his way to a 16-1 record and a Cy Young Award. A kid named Ryne Sandberg burst onto the national scene with an “oh-no-he dih-n’t” 2-home run performance against Bruce Sutter and the hated Cardinals on national TV, back when being on national TV meant people actually watched. That game won him the MVP award that season. You had Dernier and Moreland, Jo-dy-Jo-dy-Jo-dy Davis, Durham and Sarge Matthews, the wily vets Larry Bowa and the Penguin, Ron Cey, as well as future Hall of Fame closer Lee Smith. They clinched in early September—the 9th, if my memory serves me correctly. It was a Wednesday night, I think, because I came home just in time from a church thing to see Sutcliffe strike out the final Pirate of a complete game. I remember watching Jim Frey and the rest of the team charge out of the dugout in wild celebration. There were more Cubs fans than Pirates fans in the old Three Rivers Stadium that night, and several of them held up a long banner that read “39 YEARS OF SUFFERING IS ENOUGH!”, which was a reference to the Cubs’ last postseason appearance in 1945. It seemed like an eternity for a 12-year old boy to wait between the clincher and the playoffs.

The Cubs didn’t have lights at Wrigley back then, so I remember running home from the bus stop to catch the end of the first two games on TV. We had been listening on portable radios in school, but it was worth the sprint home to see the red, white and blue bunting on the brick walls at Wrigley on a day other than the opener. And, of course, the Cubs walloped the Padres 13-0 in the opener, and won the second game of the best-of-five series as well. One more win in three games in San Diego, and the Cubs would have been in the World Series for the first time in a generation. I won’t recount what happened, but suffice it to say, if I ever meet Steve Garvey in person—I don’t care if he’s 80—I’m going to kick him in the nuts. (Of course, I might not be the only one waiting in line to do that). I watched game 5 with my best friend Dave at his house, and we were crushed. Twelve year old boys aren’t supposed to cry, certainly not in front of each other. But we bawled like, well, like girls.

Fast forward a few years past the 1989 and 1998 teams to 2003. I had officially entered the category of “long suffering” Cubs fan, having passed my thirtieth birthday without so much as a first-round National League playoff series win. Everything came together that year. A mature Wood and a young kid named Mark Prior were blowing batters away. Sammy Sosa was hitting balls that would have gotten out of Denali National Park. Dusty Baker, a champion player and renowned manager was at the helm. The Cubs blew by the first round playoff opponent so easily, I don’t even remember who it was. And they earned a 3-1 NLCS series lead against the Marlins, which came from a state that didn’t have professional baseball until ten minutes before September of that year. The Cubs were cruising along behind Prior, just five outs away from the first Chicago World Series since 1959, and the first for the Cubs in 58 years. Then, somebody popped a ball along the Wrigley Field foul line that drifted over the stands and back toward left field. Moises Alou thought he should have been able to catch it, were it not for a fan’s mitt getting in the way—threw his glove down like a child not getting his way. He might’ve been able to catch that ball, but it was not likely. The fan took a lot of heat, mostly because of Alou’s reaction. If Alou just trots back to left field, nobody ever knows who Steve Bartman is. I didn’t blame Bartman at the time and still don’t. But right then, I knew it was over.

The Cubs had a chance to get out of it with limited damage, but the normally reliable Latino-shortstop-du-jour booted a tailor-made double play ground ball and the Marlins came back to win. The Cubs still had a 3-2 series lead, with Kerry Wood set to pitch one more time. But I knew it was over. Predictably, they lost the final two games and Wrigleyville became a Necropolis. After the game 7 loss, I felt just like I did when I was 12, minus the tears. Men don’t cry, you know, and even if they did, we had since learned that there is no crying in baseball.

Fast forward again, past Prior’s spectacular flame-out and Sosa’s unceremonious departure from town, to 2007. The Cubs had a good team, one that could have won the NL pennant. They got swept by the Diamondbacks in the first round of the playoffs. I was pretty upset, but I knew they’d learn from that series, that they’d be bringing back some very good players and that 2008—the 100-year anniversary of the Cubs’ last World Series victory—was destined to be the year.

They had a great season again, ending up with the best record in the National League and a healthy Kerry Wood dominating at closer. Everyone was predicting a cakewalk to a World Series title. But, impossibly (yet inevitably), for the second consecutive year, they got swept by an NL West team, the Dodgers, in the first round of the playoffs. You could tell from the first pitch of that series that they were going to lose, if not get swept again.

That’s when I got off the bandwagon. I was going to burn my Cubs hat in a symbolic divorce from the team, but for some reason decided against it. But I’m done. I am no longer a Cubs fan. I don’t care about the upcoming season. I don’t care that they signed so-and-so, that so-and-so looks so much better this year, that so-and-so is poised for a breakout season. I just don’t care. I’m not going to get emotionally invested in a team that I know is going to punch me in the stomach again. I just can’t do it. 2003 was gut-wrenching, but 2008 ended with more of a somber finality. It was like watching a beloved grandparent who had been painfully, terminally ill finally slip away. There was sadness, but mostly relief that the suffering was over. You could peacefully say goodbye.

And that’s what I’ve done with the Cubs. I’ve said goodbye. I’ve let them peacefully slip away. I don’t wish them ill will like I do the White Sox or Cardinals (or Padres, for that matter). I don’t hate them. I hope they do well, I really do. But they’ll have to do it without me. I won’t be rooting for anyone else—that’d be silly and icky, like somebody moving to another city and suddenly becoming a big fan of his or her new hometown’s team, one that just “happens” to contend every year and win on occasion. The only way I’d become interested again is if it’s game four of the NLCS (I don’t care if the Cubs win the Series, just like Pop Fisher only wanted Roy Hobbs to get him a NL pennant in The Natural) and the Cubs have a 3-0 series lead, a 10-0 lead in the ninth inning and the other team down to its final out with no one on base. But I know they’ll never be that assured of victory, and so, I won’t be back. Many baseball experts and casual fans alike are again predicting them to win the NL this year, but I know better.

After all, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, and you can’t get fooled again.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Quiet, Please

I wrote just a few weeks ago about how I've fallen off on my blog writing. I started out last fall completely gung-ho, wanting to share my thoughts and ideas with the world, to encourage conversation on meaningful topics, and to occasionally offer a humorous glance at the truly absurd and those overly serious-types that need a little tweak now and then.

But since the new year started, which happened on or about January 1st, I've really struggled with my motivation to write. And I couldn't pinpoint why.

However, in the solitude of the car over the past couple days, I think I've come to terms with why I don't want to engage on any topics: there's just too much noise.

You see, the nature of the world today is such that people more than ever seem to think they're entitled to hammer others with their opinions, convinced that only their opinions are the right ones. And more often than not, people are so zealously sharing their convictions, their rhetoric ends up coming out in derisive, divisive, hateful sound bites, either vocally or in print. The worst part about it is that it's usually loud, both in actual decibel level and in hyperbolic excess, so much so that they can't hear or understand anyone else's position over the noise, especially when done from behind the anonymity of the internet.

What's even more criminal is that when people get to that point, they don't want to see if there's some middle ground out there, because the position--or the person--they're arguing against must be completely idiotic for having that opposite opinion.

Don't believe me? Check any online edition of any newspaper that offers a reader comment section. Then, find a story about politics, either local or national. Then, scroll down and read the comments from readers. There are usually a couple thoughtful remarks, but a lot of the time, it ends up degenerating into truly mean-spirited partisanship. If you really don't believe me, I point you to an online story in today's Bloomington (Illinois) Pantagraph, about the new federal tobacco tax that is going to be taking effect.

You'll have to trust me when I say this particular set of comments is actually pretty civil, based on what usually gets said. I've perused some other papers' websites and this kind of "discourse" is pretty much par for the course.

Turn on FOX News, or FOX Nation, or whatever they're calling themselves this week. Turn on MSNBC. Turn on Nancy Grace. Turn on Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann. Read Ann Coulter. Turn on any program that features any of the spin doctors talking about any issue. They're all convinced that they're right and that not only is the rest of the world wrong, but that everyone else int he world are complete idiots. Granted, they (usually) don't come right out and say it, but the implication is there. They so tightly and blindly hang onto old ideologies that they can't see anything but the glow of their own auras in front of them. (I hold up Karl Rove as an example, who was smugly asking the other night what would be wrong with GM or AIG failing. I thought to myself, "Self, I wonder what he would be thinking if he were suddenly out of work, and found out that his 401(k) had been raided, and that the CEO of the company he just got laid off from got a $20 million golden parachute. I wonder if he'd be abstaining from collecting unemployment on principle. I wonder if he'd be standing there during the foreclosure proceedings on his house, thinking, 'Gosh, the system works. I deserve this for not saving more and investing better, for not getting a better degree, getting into a more secure job in a more secure field.'" He just doesn't consider the possibility that there might be a reason for a different opinion, other than idiocy.)

The last straw came as I was driving around for work the other day, some people on the radio on some talk show were expressing outrage over some topic. And it happened that I agreed with them, but, suddenly, I just couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't take the polarization. I couldn't take the divisiveness. I couldn't take that there was merely a decent prospect and not a 100% chance of returning back to a dull roar, let alone a normal conversation. I wanted quiet and I wanted peace. I wanted--I want--everyone to stop screaming at each other. And, to put on my Veruca Salt tights, I want it now.

(You might say, no, idiot, you're overreacting. People aren't screaming at each other, they're just having a vigorous, yet civil exchange of ideas. I would disagree. I've been involved in vigorous, yet civil exchanges of ideas [right, Mikey?], and the garbage that takes place in the aforementioned forums is not in the same area code as civil.)

So instead of just railing about something without offering an alternative, as so many bloggers/posters/politicians like to do, I propose the following:

I think everybody should listen to more classical music.

In fact, I instituted that rule in my house a few weeks ago when my kids had been on a streak of being truly awful for an unusually long period of time. No Hannah Montana, no High School Musical, no Jonas Brothers, not even Delilah on Magic 100.7 when they go to bed at night. In the car, whenever we're all together, during dinner, only classical music is allowed. The television is also off limits, at least for the kids, unless special permission has been granted. I'm trying to promote an atmosphere that's more harmonious, one that's calmer, more polite, more civil, more peaceful. One that's less Blagojevich. In other words, can't we all just get along?

I think the wonder that is classical music can help effect that change not only in my own home and my own attitude, but in this 24/7 battle for ideological supremacy.

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't know what this ultimately means for my blogging. None of the discussion here has been the slightest bit contentious--every comment, every respondent, has been thoughtful, insightful, intelligent and respectful of others' opinions. If the whole world would function like that, I think I'd remain more engaged. I think most people would become more engaged. But to be constantly bombarded with the implication that you're an idiot not only by experts, but by John Q. Anonymous as well, has to be extremely daunting. I don't want to disengage completely; I just want people to be engaged more civilly--and to quote, ugh, Michael Jackson--I'm starting with the man in the mirror.

Maybe more Mozart and less Limbaugh* could start that. Who's with me?

* I use "Limbaugh" only for its alliterative value--I could just as easily have said "Olbermann" here. They are both complete blowholes--read nothing into the fact I picked the conservative one.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


I’m thinking about disbanding this blog. I haven’t posted lately, due, mostly to being unusually busy, both at work and at home. However, I’ve recently been thinking about what exactly the purpose of this blog is, and whether I’m meeting that purpose.

I mean, I think I’ve generated a little conversation, I think I’ve caused a few people to laugh a little, I think I’ve done some pretty decent writing. But I don’t know if I’ve reached the expectations I’ve had for myself. And being that those expectations weren’t defined, it’s hard to really say.

It’s also difficult to write about the same things over and over. After all, what’s been in the news? The stimulus, the automakers, Blago and Burris. In a way, I can understand how paid, circulated columnists can keep hitting upon these topics—not only are they paid, but I’m sure they get lots of reader feedback. (No, this isn’t a solicitation of more readers and/or comments). Because when you are encouraged to keep hammering away at injustices and hypocrisies, and it looks like people are paying attention and you’re what you’re saying is getting noticed, it’s easier to keep plugging away, even the topics are becoming quite distasteful.

For instance, I couldn’t write any more about Blago, even though he was in the midst of a ridiculous (in the truest sense of the word—“arousing or deserving ridicule: absurd, preposterous; syn see laughable” as defined by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) media blitz. I couldn’t stand to delve into the waters of Roland Burris. And I can’t stomach writing any more about how a certain segment of Washington said it was eager to work with the new administration, yet consistently toes the Limbaugh line, which is to say that it is hoped the new president fails.

I guess, mostly, I was a little pie-in-the-sky naïve in hoping that I would have a little impact with my words. Not many people read them, and even if a lot more did, really, what good would it do besides feed my own ego? Impact is important to me. It’s what makes good writing good writing, in my opinion: there is not just a subject for the piece, but an object as well.
Speaking of ego, one last thing has been a little disillusioning for me. I read a lot of current events materials—newspapers, columns, op/eds, blogs, almost all of it online, but still a pretty good sampling of what’s being said out there, from both sides of political issues, quite often. I read the Chicago papers online, our local paper, the Pantagraph, commentators, bloggers, and whatever else I can get my eyeballs on. And what I’ve found is that, with very few exceptions, my writing is every bit as good, if not better, than a lot of the professional stuff I read. The only person whom I read that consistently makes me go, “Damn, I wish I could write like that,” is, oddly enough, a sports columnist: Bill Simmons (“The Sports Guy”) on Just to name a couple examples, I’ve read commentaries on the auto industry and the stimulus on and observances by the so-called new media writers at the Tribune. And you know what? I feel my work is right up there—and so are the comments that have been left on some of my entries. What we’ve said in our little group has been as observant and intuitive as what’s in the national/international media.

So what am I to do? Keep plugging away for my own entertainment, and for the entertainment of the very limited number of people who read me, and hope that it accidentally catches fire somehow? Or do I say, well, I’ve fulfilled one of my goals, which was to do some good writing and generate some portfolio material, in the event I ever want to try my hand at becoming a writer full time?

I don’t know.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Modest Offer

As I get older, the more I think about the fragility of life. I think particularly, now that I've been a father for more than nine years, of my children and how to keep them safe and happy. I have myself convinced that no other parent in the world loves their children or would endure for their children more than I would. I'm sure every parent thinks that, but I'm sorry, I know it.

And every so often I see something on TV or, more horrifically, in the news, that makes it clear that not only are there parents out there that not only don't love their children as much as I love mine, but inflict upon them horrors the mere thought of which shouldn't be considered by even those with the blackest of souls.

Today was one of those days.

In fact, I saw two such stories: one from California, and another from Texas. You can read the stories yourself by following the links, but if you don't have the stomach for it, and I wish I didn't, here's a recap:

In the California case, a man from near LA, distraught over his finances, killed his wife and family before offing himself. In the Texas case, a 20-year old woman and her 25-year old husband in October 2007 beat their 2-year old daughter to death with a leather belt for not learning quickly enough to say "please" and "yes, sir" before putting her tiny body in a plastic container and dumping her in Galveston Bay, where she later washed ashore on a small island.

Both are sickening, heart-wrenching stories. I can't fathom doing that to another human being, let alone a child, let alone one of my own children, for any of whom I would willingly give my life in less than the blink of an eye to save them from the slightest bit of suffering.

A couple more factoids from the stories, should you choose not to read: the LA case was the FIFTH mass family homicide/suicide in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA in the past year alone. And the one that really got me from the Texas case was today's testimony that the child tried to get her mother to stop beating her by holding her arms out and saying "I love you."

Excuse me while I compose myself for a moment.

Now, to the proposal at hand.

If anyone out there reading this thinks that slaughtering your children because your life has gone down the tubes is a viable option, I say this: bring them here.

If you know of anyone who might be close enough to the edge that you fear for their children: bring them here.

I'm not kidding.

I don't make a great deal of money, and I don't have a very big house, but I can promise this: they will be safe and they will be loved with me and my family. I don't care if I have to work a third or fourth job to provide for everybody. I'll do it. I'll keep the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and I'll keep clothes on their backs and their bellies full. And I'll keep their hearts next to my own.

As I write this, the WGN-TV news is reporting on how a 2-month old baby boy was found today in a filthy, roach-infested apartment in Chicago, the child of a 16-year old mother who lived in that two-room "home" with 14 other people. Lovely.

Bring them here.

In a letter to a TV station, the perpetrator of the California incident wrote, "Why leave the children to a stranger?"

My answer is that it's better than the alternative of having their brains blasted out of a doorknob-sized exit wound in the back of their heads. It's better than beating a defenseless little girl and then stuffing her into a storage bin and dumping her in the ocean. It's better than letting a child go naked and hungry and crawling with roaches until he dies. That's why you leave them with a stranger.

Please, just bring them here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Farewell Address

Anyone who knows me more than superficially knows that I’ve been a pretty harsh critic of our wounded waterfowl head of state, Mr. George W. Bush. I tend to hang, er, lean left, so that’s naturally where some of the animosity comes from: I just plain disagree with many of his policies.

But as I watched his farewell address last night, I realized there were actually things for which he’s to be admired, though, the ability to become a better public speaker OVER EIGHT YEARS inexplicably isn’t one of them.

It’s not that I’m softening on him in the face of overwhelming public disapproval—like any good American, I’m all for the underdog, the castoff, as Mr. Bush has become. I just decided, as he was trying to shape his legacy with one final (very poorly written) speech, to try, as a citizen of our country, to try to fairly assess his performance without any talking heads trying to spin my perceptions.

So what about George W. Bush should I, John Q. Public, as opposed to Joe T. Plumber, remember as worthwhile?

Well, if you remember, there was this little thing in September of 2001. Scared the sheeee-it out of all of us. And whilst you might not agree with some of the subsequent intelligence-gathering and loss of liberties for the sake of security, you know what? It hasn’t happened again. In fact, he cited that as his greatest accomplishment during his address. So he can certainly take some well-deserved credit for that.

And in the wake of 9/11, he created the Department of Homeland Security, which helped reform how all the intelligence gathering agencies shared information. The creation of DHS also funneled a great deal of much-needed money into local law enforcement and emergency response agencies, for both equipment and the standardizing of training and cross-jurisdictional protocols. Granted, some of that needed to be tweaked after Apocalypse Katrina, but that was an event the scale of which had never been seen before.

Further, he caught and killed Saddam Hussein, who was doing his best to rival Adolf Hitler in the commission of atrocities.

I, personally, can also thank Mr. Bush for putting money in my pocket a couple times. If you’ll remember, there was a tax rebate check a few years ago for a few hundred bucks, and then there was the much-ballyhooed “economic stimulus checks” which everybody got last year. Mine came to more than two thousand dollars. Sure, you can argue that his policies led to taking money out of my pocket in the first place (in the form of higher gasoline prices) and that the stimulus checks did absolutely nothing to stimulate the economy, but, hey, a couple thousand bucks is a couple thousand bucks.

On the negative side of the ledger, however, I believe his biggest crime has NOT been the invasion of and subsequent war in Iraq. What I think has been most deplorable is that his energy and environmental policies have been dictated by Big Oil—which one could argue has directly led the American auto industry to the precipice of doom. It remains to be seen whether the Bush Administration’s failure to acknowledge—and in some cases, cover upclear evidence of global climate change (by not encouraging alternative fuels, hybrid technologies, and pushing for tougher emission and mileage standards so that the oil companies—which CLEAR $1,300 a SECOND—could continue to produce the gasoline required to run unnecessary SUV’s and massive pickup trucks) means the death knell for the Big Three. We will find out sooner rather than later.

To continue the debits, America’s image around the world has taken a hit; when he speaks extemporaneously he makes Bobcat Goldthwait sound like Dr. King; he’s opposed stem cell research and gay marriage, which, whether you agree with them or not, are the right and fair things to support, respectively; he’s led a conservative movement which has brought a new phraseology into our lexicon (red state/blue state), denoting how we now view and, in some cases, despise each other; and perhaps worst of all, his spin machine has painted as unpatriotic anyone who disagrees with him.

So what is his legacy? At the end of the day, Mr. Bush presided over some of the most uniquely challenging times in our nation’s history. He faced an attack on American soil, the impact of which was akin, in both loss of life and emotional impact, to Pearl Harbor. He faced a natural disaster that far exceeded even the worst-case projections. He’s been dealing with the possible collapse of the nation’s auto industry and near-collapse of the banking and real estate industries, which is fueling the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

I guess, when you add it all up, because we don’t yet know whether we’ll be attacked again, whether the economy will recover, how Iraq will turn out or how we’ll handle another epic natural disaster, his legacy will have to temporarily lie elsewhere. History will ultimately have to determine how George W. Bush is remembered and viewed, and that isn’t going to happen on January 21, 2009 by the rah-rahs at FOX News or the bile-spitters at MSNBC.

But for now, for me, his legacy rests this way, as he stated in his address: he followed his conscience. He consulted with his trusted advisors, he made his plans, and he followed through on what he thought was right. And there’s a lot to be said for that, in my book. He didn’t waffle in the face of overwhelming public criticism. He didn’t quit. He attacked it with his “bring ‘em on” cowboy American bravado. Now just imagine if everything had turned out perfectly. He’d be leaving office more beloved than Reagan. He’d be admired for that attitude which people have since called brash, inflexible, arrogant and naïve. I’ve criticized him on a lot of things, but I have always admired his ability to stick to his guns on what he thought was right.

We shall see if the history and textbooks—if the ancient printed medium still exists—my grandchildren will read end up agreeing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Facebook and Chicken Soup

I’ve not been great about updating my blog lately, for which I was gently chided at home the other night, having not yet posted in the new year. Part of my laziness has been a complete oversaturation (and overnauseation) with all this Blagojevich nonsense, as well as a general malaise about the fact that nothing I ever say or do about anything will amount to a hill of extra-dark roast coffee beans.

But another part of the reason, I suppose, is that in the past couple months I’ve become enamored with Facebook, the online social networking site, for those of you who have been living under several rocks. I’m finding myself logging in, checking others’ status updates, updating my own status, uploading photos, playing whatever mind-numbing games happen to strike my fancy at the time, and making snarky comments about things my friends say, do and post.

Friends. That’s what Facebook is all about. You find people you know, add them as friends, they add you back, you look at their friend lists, find other people you know or remember from high school, grade school, the nursery at the hospital where you were born, or even in the premortal existence, add them, and voila—you have a social network: a group of friends. At least that’s what Facebook calls them.

I point to an article that was in the Chicago Tribune recently, one that was “posted” on Facebook by a couple of my “friends.” (I use quotation marks around the word friends, not because the people that posted it aren’t friends, per se, but because they’re in my social network of people that I added on Facebook). You can read the article yourself, but I quote the last few paragraphs here:

"And I wonder about the younger generations who are growing up intravenously connected to these networks. What happens as online nomenclature is woven into offline life? Will people be able to distinguish between a Facebook friend and one who will bring them chicken soup when they're sick? What will that mean for the way our society interacts—or doesn't—in the future?

The people I remain connected to through force of will are there to stay. Just because a friend from grade school and I could find each other's profiles and enjoy reconnecting for a brief moment in time doesn't mean there's anything more to be shared.

More than likely, we would occasionally check out each other's profiles, send off the hollow "Happy Birthday" when the system tells us to, and find ourselves no closer than before we encountered each other in cyberspace.

Convenient, yes, but hardly the kind of effort that yields real friendship."

A couple comments that I’ve read about this article seem to indicate the attitude that anyone who holds this kind of opinion is just kind of a “get-off-my-lawn” square who doesn’t understand the way people interact today. Being one that gets irked at people (younger than me, mostly—yeah, you, get off my lawn!) who are constantly tappity-tapping away on their cell phones sending text messages to people, I instinctively agreed with the article. So I ended up going into the whole Facebook thing rather slowly.

But once I got the hang of it, found a few “friends,” played a few games, uploaded a few pictures, shared a few memories, wow, I jumped in with both feet. I talked with people I hadn’t seen since high school graduation, since living with in the same dorms at college, since my old life in radio, people I’d spent the bulk of my summers with since I was four. It was fantastic! I had people add me that I didn’t think I was cool enough to have been friends with. They added me! My friend list exploded exponentially. I was popular!!

Or so it seemed.

I started to think about all the people that I was “friends” with, and whom, if anybody, I considered to be true chicken-soup-delivering friends. Then, one picture somebody posted really hit home with me. It was of a bunch of guys that I knew, posing for a snapshot at somebody’s house before some life-alteringly important high school dance. I had been involved with almost every single one of them in some sport or activity—most, I had played football with. And when you spray snot and sweat on each other and stink up locker room bathroom stalls together, you tend to get fairly friendly.

But I wasn’t in that picture. A group of about 15 guys that I knew fairly well for a number of years, and I hadn’t been invited to the party. Some were guys that I didn’t even think were part of that football-playing, cheerleader-dating group, but there they were. I was upset—20 goddamn years later—because I thought I belonged there. I was surprised that it affected me that much. Then I realized why.

You see, it served as a stark confirmation of a suspicion that I’ve always had—that those people weren’t really my friends. In my mind, if I were really considered a friend, somebody would have thought, ‘hey, let’s call Fata,’ especially in a group that big, somebody would (should?) have thought of me. I thought I was pretty popular then, as I was in a colossal number of different activities and sports, from football to French Club. But in subsequent years, I realized I really wasn’t actually popular, due, I guess, to the fact that I was in so many different groups, I didn’t belong to one of them. And that picture jolted me back to reality, shattering my illusion of newfound popularity. I didn’t get any more popular simply because a few people said they were glad to “see” me on Facebook 20 years later.

I make no secret of my rejection issues—my whole life, I’ve always felt like I’m on the outside of something or other looking in. (It’s why I can’t stand to be late—I’m afraid I’m not important enough for people to not start without or not leave behind). And Facebook forcing me to call these people “friends” reminded me of that.

The truth is, they were—and are now—acquaintances. I wasn’t invited to a little pre-dance party 20 years ago with people I thought I was kind of close with—what makes me think any of them would bring me chicken soup if I were sick, even if I lived close enough? Who would buy me several thousand beers and listen to me spill my guts if I were going through a rough time? Who would help me move? Who would give me a ride to or from an airport at 4 a.m.?

Who among them would I have told that our unborn son died in utero last year?

I have two people on my “friends” list I’ve never even met! One guy’s a news anchor in Peoria who added me for some reason, and another is a guy in Maryland or Delaware whose name I’ve never even heard before. But I accepted his friend request because, hey, he’s got something to do with something I’m interested in career-wise, I think. Pretty lame, huh? Think he’d pick me up at the airport if I ever flew out east?

That’s not to say Facebook is evil for making me call these people “friends.” I’m genuinely glad to have reconnected with all of them. And I’ve actually found a couple surprise actual friendships, based on similar interests, memories and post-school life events, so that’s been really great. But I wish there was some sort of option to post things for everybody to see, and then an option to post things you only want your real, live, in-the-now, actual friends to see. There is the option to make friends lists, to categorize people by how you know them: high school, college, work, church, etc. So there’s one list that I’ve got labeled “inside”—as in inside my inner circle. It’s not a very populous list. If you have to ask if you're on it, that should give you your answer.

Since Facebook is forcing me to call everybody “friends,” instead of acquaintances, I think as my own little nod to the importance of the “inside”-ers, I’ll change the name of that particular list to that which a true friend would deliver in a time of need:

Chicken Soup.

Postscript: If you read the article on the Tribune site, you’ll notice there is no byline. There is only an e-mail link to the author at the bottom. How do you e-mail chicken soup?

Post postscript: Wow, this entry became a lot more about me than about Facebook. Sorry. I could go on and on about my views on friendship, what kind of relationship might qualify as friendship and why, but I think I'll save that for another day, if at all.