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.