Wednesday, December 28, 2005

An Era Ends, The Homoginization Rolls On

As I sit here at my old family home, I am greeted by this piece of news. After 107 years, Chicago's landmark Berghoff Restaurant is closing.

First, the personal. I have many fond personal memories of the Berghoff. As a kid, their Christmas decorations were always the highlight of a trip to the Loop. They still are some of the best in the city, rivalling those of Marshall Field's (another local name that disappears on the first of the year). We took high school field trips there with the German Club. I took a group from my undergraduate institution on a tour of Chicago Loop architecture and we ate there. On a more regular basis, I ate there when I worked and later went to graduate school in the city. It was probably the first German food I ever ate. Was it the best? I think that title goes to Karl Ratzsch's in Milwaukee. It sure was good, though.

On a more general level, this represents a further move away from local business and towards national, corporate sameness. Chicago used to seem...well...different. It did not have the same sights, businesses, cultural institutions that you could find anywhere else. This added to the unique neighborhood life made Chicago a special place to live. It was not New York or Atlanta or Los Angeles or Cleveland or Salt Lake City or anywhere else. Special places and people made Chicago what it was.

Now, as I walk around downtown, it is not the same place that it was when I was a kid. This may be because I changed, but I cannot help but notice that Chicago is starting to look like anywhere else. National chain businesses are doing away with local business. The distinct Chicago dialect is frowned upon and is slowly dying as the neighborhoods change, gentrify and lose their sense of place as a space with specific meaning. As people increasingly live in separate compartments in the sky, they are in a different spatial understanding that someone who is more connected to their environment.

Housing begins to look the same, businesses look the same, people sound the same. The only differences are where the [fill in the blank] is in [fill in the "place" name].

The separation is complete. Life in the urban landscape has become sterile, interchangable, replaceable, disposable and ultimately vapid and self-destructive. Place is replaced by indifferentiated space. Sure, it is separated by function and property ownership laws, but this is about it.

The innate meaning that people inscribe on the landscape become standardized and impotent. The city can be replicated and destroyed, rebuilt in a day and torn down without a trace. People play their roles, interact in predictable ways and days merge, blurring time.

Much ado about an old German restaurant? Perhaps. It cannot, however, be ignored that our lives are ever more standardized and dull. The Industrial Revolution did good things, but rarely in history is anything all good (or bad).

Remember, only you can help you change this.

NOTE: If the questions of space, place and meaning are of interest, these books are quite useful:
  • Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. (His Topophilia is also quite good)
  • Italo Calvino, Imaginary Cities.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Jenks Response

One of the regular readers of this space, Matthew Gordon "The Beer Tsar" Jenks, has responded to some of my recent posts in rather copious fashion. First off thanks to all who read and respond here. You make doing this worthwhile. Secondly, I will respond/clairfy/expand on some of the aforementioned Beer Tsar's musings as of late (for the original texts, refer to the below referenced posts on this site and the comments therein):
  • "Blame Canada." - While I never expected an exodus of everyone from the "blue" states (that would involve my parents) moving to Canada, the results of the election did seem to land like a dull thud. The seeming coincidences of history, however, seem to be playing out. The Ol' Second Term Curse seems to be creeping in and one must wonder about the mid-term elections next year. Will the Democrats get their act together? They have an opportunity to really do something, but as of late, they seem to have trouble getting elected to much more than dog catcher or the joke jobs (Chicago building inspector, for example). As for Belgium, you make some good points. Germany ran over them twice and threatened a third time (during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War). I can see how the classic French rentier mentality survives; it has often been said that Frenchmen fly their flag on the left, but vote on the right. I think, moreover, that it must be said that Belgium, as we know it, has only existed since 1830 and they are in no way innocent of horrible atrocities in the past. Any time they want to deride the USA, remind them of King Leopold II and his "humanitarian" record in the Congo. That'll shut 'em up. Brussels may be a nice city and home of the EU, but it was built on the blood of millions of Africans. Let them choke on their Chimay with that.
  • "The 'Smoke-Filled Room' Commits Suicide." - Well put. As all of you know, I have long been an enemy of the nanny state. The state takes so much. We must fight tooth and nail for what we can salvage of our rights. It is sad, however, that we must concentrate on the mere dignities of life and not the "big" issues concerning our eroding rights. This news today, however, was a good sign. A good fight led in part by Russ Feingold, but if he thinks this is the basis for a presidential run, he's nuts. He will be a latter day Dennis Kucinich.
  • "Bucky Vs. A Dead Pope? Advantage Bucky!" - Football and polka? So, you were at the Essen Haus this fall? That describes a large part of my social life. Anyway, I never claimed that Wisconsin is claiming to be a b-ball powerhouse. Their gradual rise over the past years has raised us, I think, to the level of a "regional power." In traditional "Great Power" politics (thanks for the idea to my hero, A.J.P. Taylor), we have not gained Great Power status. Hockey is another issue. We are the best in the land, excepting that one upset against Michigan Tech last week (which was avenged the next day by a 7-0 drubbing). All of the Colorado college hockey teams like bitch-ass Colorado College and it's less hot sister the University of Denver can do various lewd things to certain regions of my anatomy. Namely the ballsack. Sorry for that...I really hate Colorado (with the exception of a few select people).
  • "Packers: Take Your Ball And Go Home." - I am a Chicago Bears fan, and you are telling me about teams needing time to rebuild? What the hell were the Dave Wannstead years? Well, and Dick Jauron...and Lovie Smith. The Bears have shown flashes of greatness lately, but are plagued by injury and fines. We must consider, after the embarassing loss to a desparate Pittsburgh team, that the world has not come to an end and that Atlanta is immenently beatable. As for the Packers, yes it is the time to rebuild and regain strength. Chicago teams are notorious for screwing up when it counts, so it could happen. Perhaps it is because I would have no other team as our rivals...we are the classic pairing. Still, it is a great moral victory for the Bears to beat the Packers, regardless of the condition/record of either franchise. It is like any classic can make a bad season good or a good one feel less glorious. I know here at Wisconsin, we had a decent season for King Barry's last, but the Minnesota game is always crucial. Being a Notre Dame fan, I needn't lecture you on classic football rivalries.

So there you go, Jenks. Thanks again and perhaps we shall gather on the ground of the Hoosier State once again.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Blame Canada

I felt that this post needed to happen.

I have had considerable feelings against Canadians (and Americans who would represent themselves as such) recently, and I felt the need to make everything clear.

Apart from the governing class in Canada (a story about which, as related to me be regular COTL reader Greg, will be discussed in turn), I felt the need to compile the...

List Of Canadians Will Shannon Does Not Hate

Gordon Lightfoot
Stephan Jackson and his dad, Gord.
Dr. David Mc Donald, Ph.D.
David Clayton Thomas
Kids in the Hall (Scott Thompson, David Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCullough and Kevin
John Candy
Eugene Levy
Dave Thomas
Joe Flaherty
Rick Moranis
Catherine O'Hara
Harold Ramis
Dan Ackroyd
Andrea Mitchell
Billy Bishop
The Band
Neil Young

See. just admit that you are a Canuck and we will be fine.

As for you Yankee Doodles who claim otherwise, I have one message. There are two crimes specifically mentioned in the Constitution of the United States: treason and counterfeiting.

The punishment for both is hanging.

I am not kidding.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Christmas Time In The City, Mike Royko Style

I have been resisting saying or doing anything Christmas related this year. The seemingly forced festivity does not correlate with my general mood of stress and impending deadlines. I need another thing to worry about like I need a kick in the shorts.

I did, however, remember a piece by one of my all-time heros, Mike Royko, that always struck me at this time of year. It is reproduced below.

It is one of hundreds of Royko's columns that prove that he was one of the greatest newspaper columnists of all time. Nobody captured the mind, heart and soul of a city like Mike Royko did with Chicago. It's too bad he's gone.

If you get a chance, see the Mike Royko exhibit at the Newberry Library.

This column was originally published in the Chicago Daily News on December 19, 1967.

Mary and Joe, Chicago Style

Mary and Joe were flat broke when they got off the bus in Chicago.

They didn't know anybody and she was expecting a baby.

They went to a cheap hotel. But the clerk jerked his thumb at the door when they couldn't show a day's rent in advance.

They walked the streets until they saw a police station. The desk sergeant said they couldn't sleep in a cell, but he told them how to get to a welfare office.

A man there said they couldn't get regular assistance because they hadn't been Illinois residents long enough. But he gave them the address of the emergency welfare office on the West Side.

It was a two-mile walk up Madison Street. Someone gave them a card with a number on it and they sat down on a bench, stared at the peeling green paint and waited for their number to be called.

Two hours later, a caseworker motioned them forward, took out blank forms and asked questions: Any relatives? Any means of getting money? Any assets?

Joe said he owned a donkey. The caseworker told him not to get smart or he'dbe thrown out. Joe said he was sorry.

The caseworker finished the forms and said they were entitled to emergency CTA fare to County Hospital because of Mary's condition. And he told Joe to go to an Urban Progress Center for occupational guidance.

Joe thanked him and they took a bus to the hospital. A guard told them to wait on a bench. They waited two hours, and then Mary got pains and theytook her away. Someone told Joe to come back tomorrow.

He went outside and asked a stranger on the street for directions to an Urban Progress Center. The stranger hit Joe on the head and took his overcoat. Joe was still lying there when a paddy wagon came along so they pinched him for being drunk on the street.

Mary had a baby boy during the night. She didn't know it, but three foreign-looking men in strange, colorful robes came to the hospital asking about her and the baby. A guard took them for hippies and called the police. They found odd spices on the men so the narcotics detail took them downtown for further questioning.

The next day Mary awoke in a crowded ward. She asked for Joe. Instead, a representative of the Planned Parenthood Committee came by to give her a lecture on birth control.

Next, a social worker came for her case history. She asked Mary who the father was. Mary answered and the social worker ran for the nurse. The nurse questioned her and Mary answered. The nurse stared at her and ran for the doctor. The doctor wrote "postpartum delusion'' on her chart.

An ambulance took Mary to the Cook County Mental Health Clinic the next morning. A psychiatrist asked her questions and pursed his lips at theanswers.

A hearing was held and a magistrate committed her to the Chicago StateHospital.

Joe got out of the House of Corrections a couple of days later and went to the County Hospital for Mary. They told him she was at Chicago State and the baby had been placed in a foster home by the state Department of Children and Family Services.

When Joe got to Chicago State, a doctor told him what Mary had said about the baby's birth. Joe said Mary was telling the truth. They put Joe in a ward at the other end of the hospital.

Meanwhile, the three strangely dressed foreign-looking men were released after the narcotics detail could find no laws prohibiting the possession of myrrh and frankincense. They returned to the hospital and were taken for civil rights demonstrators. They were held in the County Jail on $100,000 bond.

By luck, Joe and Mary met on the hospital grounds. They decided to tell the doctors what they wanted to hear. The next day they were declared sane andwere released.

When they applied for custody of Mary's baby, however, they were told it was necessary for them to first establish a proper residence, earn a proper income and create a suitable environment.

They applied at the Urban Progress Center for training under the Manpower Development Program. Joe said he was good at working with wood. He was assigned to a computer data-processing class. Mary said she'd gladly do domestic work. She was assigned to a course in key-punch operating. Both got $20-a-week stipends.

Several months later, they finished the training. Joe got a job in a gas station and Mary went to work as a waitress.

They saved their money and hired a lawyer. Another custody hearing was held and several days later the baby was ordered returned to them.

Reunited finally, they got back to their two-room flat and met the landlord on the steps. He told them Urban Renewal had ordered the building torn down.The City Relocation Bureau would get them another place.

They packed, dressed the baby and hurried to the Greyhound bus station.

Joe asked the ticket man when the next bus was leaving.

"Where to?'' the ticket man asked.

"Anywhere,'' Joe said, "as long as it is right now.''

He gave Joe three tickets and in five minutes they were on a bus heading for southern Illinois--the area known as "Little Egypt.''

Just as the bus pulled out, the three strangely dressed men ran into the station. But they were too late. The bus was gone.

So they started hiking down U.S. 66. But at last report they were pinched on suspicion of being foreigners in illegal possession of gold.

[Copyright Chicago Tribune (c) 1997]

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The "Smoke-Filled Room" Commits Suicide?

Read it and weep, Chicago smokers.

The regular readers of this space know what I think of this issue. There is no more need to kvetch about that part of the issue.

What struck me was a turn of phrase from the past, a term coined in Chicago that popped into my head upon reading this development.

The phrase "a smoke-filled room" was coined in Chicago on June 11, 1920 at the Blackstone Hotel during the Republican National Convention.

The power brokers of the party could not come to a consensus on a candidate. They recessed into a room at the Blackstone and made the decision that Warren G. Harding was their man. The Associated Press reported that the decision was made in a "smoke-filled room."

Ever since, the phrase has been used in political circles to denote a back-room compromise wherein the leaders make an unpopular decision without the input of the people.

The city that birthed the phrase, by textbook example of its eventual definition, made the conditions for its genesis impossible.

Put that in your pipe least sleep on it, Chicago.

Bucky Vs. A Dead Pope? Advantage Bucky!

This is the sort of story that makes me glad I slog through local news every day.

For those who are lazy or fingerless, it seems that the telecast of the UW-Madison vs. UW-Green Bay basketball game tomorrow trumps a made-for-TV biopic on the late Pope John Paul II. People are actually mad that they have to stay up until one in the morning to see Jon Voight play the late pope.

Read the damned story. I am not clever enough to make this up.

Bucky (who will most likely administer a thorough rogering to UW-GB), in a real sense, is of more concern than the pope. Well, not actually...

It is not REALLY the dead pope. If he were brought back to life, THEN I could see it trump a non-conference basketball game mid week. As it stands, however, it is just a made for TV movie with Jon Voight as the pope. Is this really the sort of programming that is so timely that one must stay up 'till all hours of the night to see the first time it is broadcast.

The pope is not going to be any less dead. Tivo it or tape it. I guarantee you that the ending will always be the same. Just like that movie Titanic. The boat sinks. Save yourself the trip.

We also are in an area of the country lousy with Scandie and German Lutherans who could not give a good god damn about a movie on the pope, or even Martin Luther for that matter. They want b-ball action from the Kohl Center and by jingo they'll get it. I cannot blame them. This is also the HOME OF THE UW-MADISON, where people care about all of the games, especially against other Wisconsin institutions. You should have seen the place when they played Marquette last weekend. Tickets were going for over $200.

You tell me that these people really care about a toss-off made for TV yawn festival on a story that interested parties already know well and uninterested don't care to learn about.

So, save your breath, set the recording device of your choice and go to bed. He'll still be dead in the morning.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Packers: Take Your Ball And Go Home

I try to keep the content of this blog fairly erudite. Discussing matters of importance and depth, I attempt to make people think and encourage them to respond in a dialogue that hopefully enriches everyone.

Sometimes, however, I must use this space for other reasons.

This post is one of them.

Since I moved to Wisconsin back in August, I have been waiting for this day. My first Bears/Packers game in Wisconsin. As a life-long Bears fan, I relished the notion of being that one jerk in the bar in Wisconsin pulling for the Bears. If they lost, I would have to shut up and go home.

This, thankfully, was not an issue.

Granted, the Packers are just about the shittiest team in the league right now (not to mention the rampant injuries and Favre being an old man), but the Bears are for real. Read the recap of the game and see what I mean.

I have been taking considerable joy this year hearing Packer fans whine and moan about their team. But the happiness that I feel today is worth it.

Now, I must face the prospect of a Bears playoff run in the same year that the White Sox won the World Series (believe me, that last one has still not completely sunk in).

These are the problems you don't mind having.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Rights: A Distant Memory

Stop what you are doing right now and read Nat Hentoff's latest commentary in the Village Voice.

Yep, that's right. The U.S. Supreme Court has, in a big way, lost its jursidiction.

Now people who have suffered some of the most vile and horrid abuses at the hands of the state cannot even gain access to the highest court in the land.

But, frighteningly enough, that is not the worst part.

This even extends to violations of the writ of habeas corpus.

Yes, that most fundamental right that has been a standard in English common law since the thirteenth century, inherited into our common law since the time of the colonies. It is simple, basic and fundamental to the functioning of a free, just and open society.

And now, because of legislative doubletalk and desire for power-without-consequence, this right may be denied to those who should have it the most.

Hentoff makes a special case of the Gitmo detainees, who are doubtless the reason for this bit of legislative detritus.

Think, for a moment, about the implications of a decision like this.

In one fell swoop, one branch of government limited the access of the citizenry (supposedly the granter of power to any government) to another branch of government-the one that should redress grievances of abuse by private parties and the state alike. What is worse is that the limits were placed, voted on and approved BY THE BODY WE ELECT!

I have always been suspect of the Supreme Court, its unelected membership and their ability to affect long-term change without input from the people. One need only to look at the allegations being leveled at Samuel Alito and his now-famous memo to see that these people wield entirely too much power. Now the legislature, who are supposed to be accountable to the people on occasion, have done it. I have never respected many of the people mentioned in the Hentoff piece, and over the past few years, my respect for John McCain has been slipping significantly.

What this proves conclusively, for those who have not yet noticed, is that the legislature and indeed the entire government does not care about the rights of the citizen-even rights as basic as being told why one is being put in prison.

To paraphrase William F. Buckley, I would rather live in a country governed by the first 535 people in the Washington D.C. phone book than by the U.S. Congress. How much worse could they do?

The Bill of Rights and the rights guaranteed by common law are slowly but surely dying in the United States. When we remove the scales from our collective eyes and realize this? We elect these people year after year without thinking of the larger implications of giving such people power. WE are the source of that power, the governed. We give the government power over our lives. They have taken too much and it is time to take it back.

To conclude, I am not sure what can be done. I do, however, take some inspiration in the words (not exactly literally) of Thomas Jefferson:

The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.