Monday, March 31, 2008

Will History Absolve Him?

A few weeks ago, Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced that he was stepping down from the day to day running of Cuba. I had some thoughts on it.

In 1981, I was a sophmore transfer at Eastern Illinois University. I had to take a Political Science class. I was instantly smitten; I eventually realized I loved Political Science so much that I got both my Bachelor's and Master's in it.

The very first paper I ever had to write for that first Political Science class was on Cuba. Specifically, on Cuban economics. I chose the subject because I'd long been interested in Cuba. It formed the backdrop of my early life. A couple of weeks before I was born, a U.S.-supported invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, a notorious fiasco, occurred. Then, when I was a little over a year old, the Cuban Missle Crisis occurred, in October of 1962. This was, most historians would agree, without a doubt the closest the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, came to an all-out war. Cuba has had, for it's size and population, a disproportionate influence on the history of the last 50 years.

A few months ago, my son and I were talking about politics and history, as we frequently do, and about how there arise people in history that believe that they are absolutely entitled to lead. Those people are, for the most part, bad for their country. Tito of Yugoslavia, a Stalinist dictator, was possibly a rare exception to this; he began to look like an absolute genius as Yugoslavia disintegrated after his death into the first genocide Europe had seen since World War II.

I've often wondered, I told my son, what it would have been like if Hitler had been captured alive and tried for his crimes. In the last few years, I told him, we've actually gotten to see a little of that: the trials of Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Charles Taylor of Liberia. All three men were (or are, in Taylor's case) like the Nazi war criminals that were tried after World War II: sullen, defiant, telling the court that they had no jurisdiction over them.

My son replied that Castro would never have acted like that. I had to correct him; Castro had already acted like that.

In 1953 Castro led an assault on the Cuban military's barracks at Moncada. This raid was an unmitigated disaster, leading to the capture or death of every single member of Castro's group. Castro himself was captured.

For some reason, the regime decided to try Castro for the plot, rather than summarily execute him, as it had done with many of the other captives. Not surprisingly, Castro was found guilty. As he was an attorney, he was allowed to serve in his own defense. His four hour closing statement, on October 16, 1953, has become perhaps the most famous speech of a man famous for his long-winded speeches. It's come to be know as the "History Will Absolve Me" speech.

When I first got internet access, the very first thing I did was to download this speech. I'd long heard about it, as a student of history. It stands as one of the great pieces of oratory, political theater, and, well, chutzpah in history. Castro knew he was about to be found guilty and sentenced to prison. Yet he stood there for four hours and berated the judges, the judicial system and the political system that was about to find him guilty.

Castro was released in a general amnesty of political prisoners and a few years later, he led a group of a few dozen men in a small ship called the Granma to the shores of Cuba. Within hours, most of them were killed or captured. A handful of men, including Castro, managed to evade capture and made it to the Sierra Mastre mountains.

In the great biography of Castro, the late New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc's Fidel, there is a great account of those couple of days in the sugar cane when the handful of survivors evaded the murderous soldiers of the Batista dictaorship. As they lay in the baking sun, sucking on sugar cane for water and sustenance, Castro had a running monologue the whole time, urging them on, persuading them that the victory of the revolution was just around the corner. And this set the tone for Castro.

In his speeches over Radio Marti from the Sierra Mastre mountains, he kept the dialogue with the Cuban people running. After the revolution, this continued, as he appeared on Cuban radio and television in 5, 6 and eight-hour speeches to the Cuban people.

It is, I think, impossible to understand Castro without knowing something about his right-hand man in the Cuban revolution, Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Che met Castro in Mexico City in the 1950's. Che, had been a member of the reformist Arbenz government in Guatemala, This experience was a pivotal one in his life, and is key, I think, to understanding the Cuban Revolution.

Che watched as a small band of right-wing capitalists, backed by a small number of mercenaries-- and with the help of the CIA-- were able to overthrow the much greater number of democrats and socialists in Guatemala through control of the radio and newspapers. Later, after the success of the Cuban revolution, he was Castro's hatchet man. He personally had many people put to death. It's estimated that he had 5,000 people executed in the couple of years after the revolution, some for infractions as small as passing out pamphlets.

The hold Castro took over Cuba, with the help of Che and others, was absolute. With that power he did some good things; the Cuban education and health systems are excellent. My ex-wife, who grew up in Havana, recalled that she got innoculations and doctor visits all the time. Yet, he failed in spectacular ways. In that first paper I wrote, I documented disasterous economic plans that left Cuba time and again failing to get away from the monocrop colonial export model. The Soviet Union procured Cuba's alliance by trading its plentiful petroleum at inflated prices for Cuba's sugar. The Soviet Union heavily subsized Cuba's economy for years.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many expected Castro's regime to follow. Yet, they've limped along. Most of the world, defying the United States' bizarre refusal to end the economic embargo in Cuba, has invested heavily in Cuba as a tourist destination. This has not, however, been enough to save Cuba from poverty. Many women, educated women, have to resort to prostitution to survive.

Yet, in judging Castro's success or failure, one must also look at other Latino countries. Cuba has not suffered the massive killings that Guatemala suffered. The quality of life compares favorably to every other Carribean country, and probably to most poor rural and urban areas of the United States.

One thing that gets little mention is the fact that it was the defeat of the South African army in a proxy war in Namibia, largely by Cuban troops, in the late eighties that began the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Cuba sent doctors and teachers throughout Africa and Latin America. In the vaunted 1983 US invasion of tiny Grenada, most of the Cuban "soldiers" were construction workers there to build an airport so that Grenada could build up a tourist trade. The idea that the runways were to be used to land communist jets to export invasion and revolution into Latin America were figments of the Reagan administration's imagination.

In his classic book, "Political Order in Changing Societies," Samuel Huntington lists a number of strategies a leader of a developing country, or a "Third World" country, as we called them in the old days, can stay in power. It was, I've always thought, the modern version of Macchiavelli's "The Prince." The imperative, in both books, was not change, not improving your country, but staying in power.

Castro has kept Cuba from brutal disaster. He has also kept it from growing up. He's been a genius at keeping power. I sometimes wonder what decisions I would have made were I have been in his shoes. He's often made decisions that to me were bad politically or economically. Then again, I've made decisions that were disasterous for me personally. What the hell do I know.

In the end, the model that may apply is one from Spain, where Castro's father was from: the caudillo-- the Spanish godfather.

The village caudillo had power, but ostensibly used it justly (though this was often a myth). Interestingly, the Spanish dictator Franco and Castro's father were from villages near one another in Spain. The caudillo tradition was well entrenched there.

But Castro has stepped down, nominally, at least, from the day to day power in Cuba. In his place, he's left his brother Raul, absolutely loyal to him, but a mediocrity. And nearly as old as he is.

I have to say that I never expected Castro to step down voluntarily. He clearly thought that he had a mission, a right to be in power. But then again, so does every other person who tries to attain power, whether it be through the ballot or bullet.

To me, it's too early to judge Castro. I definitely have both accolades-- Cuba was not a horrific charnel house like Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras-- and I have severe criticism. My first wife's father, an artist and dissident, spent years as a political prisoner in Cuba. He was released and made it to the United States, but was and is a broken man. And Castro seems to have a complete inability to understand economics, or at least has a Machiavellian tendency to ignore economics in favor of political considerations.

History is a funny thing. Men and women who are leaders may look good at the time, but look bad in retrospect. And vice versa. It's hard to tell, in the crucible of the times, who is really doing a good or bad job. In the end, time tells. And I believe it will be some time before we can tell whether history absolves Castro.

The Perfect Gift

This weekend, I finally got a little time to catch up on reading my favorite blogs, and I was reading Kristi's reflections on selling her old home, thus making her move in with SV official.

As luck would have it, yesterday I was at Costco and spotted the perfect housewarming gift for them: a battery-powered portable blender, perfect for the couple who take both their backpacking and their cocktails very seriously.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Little Closer To Solving the Mystery-- or Even More Mysterious?

A few days ago, some kids playing in the woods near where their father was grading a road in Washington state found a buried parachute sticking up out of the ground. The FBI is testing it to see if it adds another clue-- or makes even more mysterious-- one of the greatest puzzles of our time-- who was D.B. Cooper, and what happened to him?

If you are over 45 or so, you probably know what I'm talking about. For those of you under that age, or those of you my age who've forgotten the details, I'll fill you in.

On November 24, 1971, a guy on a Northwest Orient Airlines flight flying from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington, announced that he had a bomb and was hijacking the airplane, a Boeing 727-100. You can read the details of it in Wikipedia's article about it. The picture at the top of the post is an FBI composite picture of the hijacker that has become iconic.

My favorite part is when he handed the folded note to the flight attendant and she assumed he was trying to give her his phone number. He had to tell her "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."

The polite hijacker, who was erroneously dubbed "DB Cooper," requested $200,000 in $20 bills and four parachutes-- two regular, two reserve. This last request was brilliant-- it held the possibility that he might bring a passenger or crew member with him, making the obvious thing to do-- sabotage his parachute-- impossible.

While the airplane circled Puget Sound, the money and parachutes were gathered, the latter from a jump school. The FBI quickly microfilmed the sequential $20 bills-- this was to be important later.

After the airplane landed at Seattle's Sea-Tac airport, he got his money and parachutes and released the passengers. He ordered the crew to fly toward Mexico, but to keep the cabin unpressurized, and to fly under 10,000 feet. At some point, he went to the back of the airplane, lowered a staircase in back-- something that only that model airplane, the Boeing 727-100, had, and he had obviously known about-- and jumped into the stormy night, never to be seen again.

"Cooper's" legendary status was almost instantaneous. The police composite picture appeared on t-shirts and cartoons. Talk-show hosts joked about him. When airplane crew members told the press that he had been courteous and calm, smoking cigarettes, sipping bourbon and waters while this all unfolded, it only added to the legend.

"Cooper" had jumped out at night in a horrendous storm. It was estimated that he jumped out of the airplane into 200 mph winds. The Air Force F-106's tailing the 727 missed him in the wind and dark. Because the plane was buffetted by the heavy winds, the crew was not certain where "Cooper" had left the plane. The FBI publicly stated that it was unlikely that the hijacker had survived the jump.

There was an 18 day search of the projected area of "Cooper's" jump zone, and nothing was found. The next spring, in April, 1972, 400 troops from nearby Ft. Lewis conducted a search of the area, again to no avail. None of the 10,000 $20 bills showed up in circulation, despite a $1000 reward offered for finding even one of the bills. The $25,000 reward offered by Northwest Airlines for the hijacker's capture went unclaimed. It appeared that the trail had gone cold, and the mystery would be unsolved.

Seven years after the hijacking, however, the first of several clues appeared.

In late 1978, a hunter found a placard giving the instructions on how to lower the 727's stairway in the presumed area of "Cooper's" jump, presumably from the hijacked airplane.

On February 10, 1980, an eight-year-old boy named Brian Ingram, who was on a picnic with his family, found a rubber-banded bundle of 294 decaying $20 bills on the banks of the Columbia River-- $5,880. They were bills from the hijacking.

This in itself was mysterious. The rubber bands holding the bills together would have rapidly deteriorated in the river. It was theorized that the money had been dislodged by a 1974 dredging operation by the Army Corps of Engineers on the river.

The recent discovery of the parachute adds to the mystery. If it was "Cooper's" parachute, it holds out two possibilities. One, that he survived the jump-- with or without the money-- buried his chute and got away. The other is that he did not survive the jump, and that someone found his body, the parachute-- and perhaps some of the money-- and buried he and the chute.

Since the hijacking, technology has advanced. "Cooper" left enough of his DNA on the things he left behind on the airplane for investigators to get his DNA profile. If investigators can pin down a suspect ("Cooper" would be in his eighties these days if he were alive), they may be able to eventually solve the mystery. My money is on one or two clues coming from unexpected places.

But what about "Cooper?" Whether he survived the jump, whether he lived or died, he got something more than the $200,000 ransom he attempted to collect, something that many have tried for and failed to achieve and something he almost certainly never intended; he achieved immortality as a pop icon and a lasting legend. Viva D.B. Cooper!

Occasional Forgotten Video: Toto Coelo, "I Eat Cannibals"

This 1982 vid is the "Plan 9 of Outer Space" of videos; it may have been one of the worst-- and one of the most entertaining-- videos ever. From the garbage bag dresses to the cheesy lighting, it was delightfully low-rent.

Toto Coelo was billed as "Total Coelo" in the United States to avoid confusion with the group Toto. The song is maddenly catchy-- listen to it and I guarantee it won't leave your head the rest of the day.

One Last Look

About a year ago, my landlord and landlady embarked on huge renovation project in the two-flat I live in-- new kitchens and bathrooms in both units, rewiring (we can now use the microwave and coffee maker at the same time!), new shelves in the pantry (the old ones sagged), a new furnace, new sewage, and new water heaters. My own contribution was a new refrigerator, a family Christmas gift last year.

That was on top of new energy efficient windows, siding, front stairway and re-roofing over the last 8 or 9 years. I've lived here through a total renovation of the building. The last step is the backyard.

When the contractors were doing the bulk of the renovation last summer, they tore most of the backyard up, in anticipation of it being redone immediately. Unfortunately, the contractor hired to design and build our new back yard fell through. My landlord, his family and we had to deal with a soggy mess of a backyard all winter:

The new contractor was supposed to begin the final phase of our renovation last week, but Chicago's weather did not cooperate, dumping a couple more inches of snow onto a city that has had much more snow than usual already.

Happily, they will begin work tomorrow. The work is scheduled to last about a week.

One more piece of good news: my missing gargoyle is accounted for.

I had noticed a few weeks ago that it was missing from the garden area. When my landlady dropped by the other day to let me know that the yard work was about to begin, I remembered to ask her about it, and she informed me that they had indeed stored it for safekeeping while the yard work was being done.

In August, it will be ten years since Adam and I moved in here. A lot has changed since then. I married and divorced the woman I moved in here with. My son is now a teenager, about to start high school. I've left a career and gone back to college. I remarried and acquired a wonderful stepdaughter in the process.

With two jobs, school and kids, life is pretty hectic these days. But I think in a few weeks, when I'm sitting by the fire pit with my wife, two kids and our good friends and landlords, enjoying a glass of Zinfandel on a cool spring night, I think that it'll all seem worth it, and will have been worth the wait.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Friday-At-Last Random Ten

For some reason, the week after spring break always seems like the longest week of the year. I'm glad this one's done.

We were talking at work last night about Chicago weather-- particularly the fact that our spring is usually just a continuation of winter. We don't get decent weather until June. I can't wait.

1. Ghetto Defendant- The Clash
2. Listen To Her Heart- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
3. Smithers-Jones-- The Jam
4. What Did You Do To My Life?- Neil Young
5. I'll Wait- Van Halen
6. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant- Billy Joel
7. Wishing Well- Free
8. Soulful Strut- Young-Holt
9. Downtown- Petula Clark
10. Stigmata Martyr- Bauhaus

1. This Clash song, from Combat Rock, their best-selling album, features the poet Allen Ginsberg.
2. My favorite Tom Petty song. He's called this song his homage to the Searchers ("Needles and Pins").
3. The Jam with a string quartet telling a tale of middle class woe.
4. From Neil Young's self-titled first solo album.
5. Van Halen the way they should be, with David Lee Roth singing.
6. Guilty Pleasure.
7. Free's other hit ("All Right Now" was their biggest). Singer Paul Rodgers went on to sing for Bad Company.
8. This lovely little instrumental hit seems to make its way into a lot of movie soundtracks.
9. I think this was her biggest hit.
10. A dark song by Bauhaus-- how unusual.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Spring Break Trip

The Evil Dictator and i took advantage of having spring break from school at the same time last week and visited my parents, who retired to Knoxville, Tennessee in 2002. We left on Tuesday morning and came back Friday.

Mother Nature made sure to have horrendous weather on both the trip there and the return. It rained hard for over half the trip there. We didn't realize that we were on the edge of a huge storm that was battering parts of the midwest. On the way back, we saw a lot of flooding in Southern and Central Indiana.

Once we got to Knoxville, though, the weather was delightful. We we excited to see my parents' new home, a townhome. It's in a less pastoral setting than the old one, but the upside is that it's way, way closer to things like shopping, the hospital, etc.

I took the upstairs loft bedroom and was treated to a view of the nearby Smokies:

It was good to see my parents. They've both had health issues: my father survived major cancer surgery nearly two years ago and my mother had a hip replacement last month. They're both doing well. My father is getting involved in the condo board, which will be great for him. My mother is getting around just fine. It turned out that she'd been dealing with pain for over 20 years.

Since she can't stand for long periods of time yet, my mother has not been able to cook. My father's been filling in for her, so I did a lot of cooking in order to give him a break. Adam hung out with his grandmother, playing cards and talking.

We left Friday morning, getting back to Chicago in time, of course, for the snow. Taking two 500 mile plus trips in four days was exhausting, but I was glad I did it. I'd been too broke to go see them around Christmas, so we hadn't seen them in nearly a year.

I left feeling good; I'm glad they moved where they did. When my mother fell and shattered her wrist four years ago, they weren't able to get an ambulance in for 24 hours because of a light snow-- their old house was in the foothills of the Smokies. They're now five minutes from the hospital.

As I drove back with my son, it struck me how, as I've eased into middle age, that I increasingly have become a parent to my folks, checking on them, caring for them. I realized, too, that some day, the guy sitting next to me in my truck was going to take on the same role with me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I know my posts have been scarce as of late: my spring break left me busier than when school is in. For one, it was St. Patrick's Day time to begin with; I work at not one, but two Irish-themed places. Then, a couple of people left the Evanston place, and I picked up extra shifts. The Evil Dictator and I ran down to Tennessee to see my parents. And then school started again. I realized at one point that I got about eight hours of sleep in a 72 hour period.

I did, however, take a moment of my busy life to take up Grant Miller on his invitation to guest blog while he was without a computer for a few days. I thought I'd post about my take on the Spitzer scandal.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saturday Random Ten

I was exhausted yesterday returning from a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee to see my parents (I drove the 1000 mile plus round trip) so I didn't do my Friday Random Ten. Here it is a day late:

1. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue- Bob Dylan
2. Midnight Rambler- Rolling Stones
3. Where Have All the Flowers Gone?- The Kingston Trio
4. 48 Hours- The Clash
5. Blame It On Cain- Elvis Costello
6. Help Me Rhonda- The Beach Boys
7. Sneaky Feelings- Elvis Costello
8. Where Were You?- The Mekons
9. One Step Ahead- Split Enz
10. Slum Goddess From the Lower East Side- The Fugs

1. One of my favorite Dylan tunes. I remember reading that Joyce Carol Oates based her story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" on this song. I love Van Morrison and Richie Havens' covers of this song as well.
2. The studio version, from the great Let It Bleed album. I also like the live version, from Get Yer Ya-ya's Out.
3. This war protest song is as relevant as ever, with the American deaths in Iraq approaching 4,000.
4. From the UK version of the Clash' first album.
5. Am I the only one who liked Elvis Costello much better when he was still young and pissed off?
6. I read recently that the two non-Wilson surviving original Beach Boys, Al Jardin and Mike Love recently settled their legal fight over who got to use the Beach Boys name. I can't wait to see the ads for "The Beach Boy, In Concert."
7. See comment #5.
8. A seventies single from Jon Langford and company, from the No Thanks! box set.
9. From the same guys who did "I Got You," one of the great singles of the eighties.
10. A gem from the wonderfully irreverent sixties icons The Fugs.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Finishing the Tag

I realized today that I forgot to finish the Meme tag; I need to create my own vanity t-shirt.

I would have a t-shirt with my favorite quote, which came from my grandfather, Freeman, who passed away ten years ago this month. (that's the Evil Dictator, who was then about two years old, with him). My grandfather was fond of saying:

"Everybody's entitled to his own stupid opinion."

I would probably put the picture of he and my son on the t-shirt and wear the thing everywhere.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

T-Shirt Tag

Bubs tagged me with a meme he got from Mathman.

Here it is:

1. Link back to the original post.
2. Describe two t-shirts that you own.
3. If you design your own vanity t-shirt what would it say?
4. Where would you wear your vanity t-shirt?
5. Tag three of your best blogging buds.

Okay, I couldn't pick my favorite two, so I'm going to cheat. I'm picking several, for I am a man of t-shirts.

This one is based on one of my favorite Saturday Night Live bits, with Christopher Walken playing a record producer demanding more cowbell while recording the Blue Oyster Cult classic "Don't Fear the Reaper."

I bought it at a shop in Seattle while visiting my friend Viktor Zeitgeist.

The next one was one I saw a friend wearing years ago, and tracked down to get for myself. I'll probably wear it on Easter.

This one was a gift from my son, who knows my fondness for naps.

The next one is a t-shirt form the Zeitgeist, a biker bar in the Tenderloin in San Francisco that I've spent many a happy hour with my friend Viktor Zeitgiest. Here's the back:

And the front:

The t-shirt, though, that is most beloved among families and friends is this one, purchased for a couple of bucks at a Salvation Army store:

Back in the day, when I'd wear the shirt, my friends would suddenly declare "My god, we ROCKED at Shayne's bat mitzvah, didn't we?" More than one friend has said that wouldn't it be funny if I was wearing that shirt one day, and ran into one of those girls?

I tag Deadspot, Skyler's Dad and of course, my son, The Evil Dictator.

Wrigley Today, ? Tommorrow...

I snapped this shot from the Red Line el a week or so ago. I wanted to get an oil change on my car, and have belts, hoses, etc. checked before Adam and I visited my parents, so I took the el to work.

There's been a big stink about Wrigley lately. The new owner of the Chicago Tribune, real estate mogul Sam Zell, has proposed selling off the naming rights like so many stadiums have in recent years. Not surprisingly, public sentiment has not been favorable.

What might surprise people is that it was not originally called Wrigley Field. It was opened in 1914 as Weeghman Park, and was the home of the Chicago Whales, of the long-gone Federal League. The Cubs were playing on the west side of Chicago at West Side Park.

They moved into their present location in 1916, and from 1920 to 1926 it was called Cubs Park, which a lot of fans still call it. It became Wrigley Field, after the owner, William Wrigley, Jr., of the chewing gum company. In 1981, the Chicago Tribune purchased the Chicago Cubs, prompting many Cubs fans to believe that the Cubs would win the World Series soon; common wisdom had it that the Cubs were a tax write-off for the Wrigley family and that they didn't want a winning team. And of course, the Cubs have not won a World Series, or even appeared in one since then.

Whether the park changes names remains to be seen. I'll probably take Adam to a game this year, but not many-- it's become very, very expensive to see a game at Wrigley. In May of 1979, not long before I graduated high school, some high school friends and I came down for a game on a sunny afternoon. We paid $1.50 for our bleacher seats, and had plenty of room. These days, bleacher seats at Wrigley cost $22.00 and up, and are hard to get on a Sunday or other weekend day. We may make a trip or two this summer to see the Peoria Chiefs, who are managed by Cubs Hall of Fame great Ryne Sandberg. And tickets are ten bucks.

Still, Wrigley is one of the last of the old stadiums. There is nothing like a summer day down there. The White Sox fans have a mythology that Wrigley is filled with cell-phone-yakking yuppies who know nothing about the game. Far from it (and I have seen that stereotype down at whatever the White Sox are calling their mall, er, I mean stadium this week). When Adam and I go, there are inevitably a couple of the old-timers who we can chat about old teams, old players and prospects for the present players.

There's an old George Carlin bit I love, about the difference between baseball and football. Football, Carlin says, is representative of industrial America, aggressive and violent. Baseball, on the other hand, is a vestige of America's rural past, a game played without time limits, and consisting mostly of standing around. For those who don't know the strategies of baseball, baseball is boring. And if you don't know the history, it's even more ponderous. But for those of us who know those things, baseball is fascinating. And to see it played, win or lose, on a gorgeous summer day in Wrigley Field-- or whatever name it ends up being-- is a great break for a few hours from a hectic, stress-filled life.

Friday, March 14, 2008

One For Splotchy, One For Bubs

In running around today, I snapped a couple of pictures of signs in Chicago.

This is the sign for the shuttered Stars Motel on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. I'm pretty sure that Splotchy alluded to this sign in a post.

I love old signs in general (although regular readers may recall that some crank labelled a picture I posted of an old diner sign "pedantic"). Lincoln Avenue, a diagonal street that runs north and west across the north side of Chicago, once had many of these motels. I've never heard a satisfactory explanation as to why there were so many along Lincoln Avenue. Over time, they became centers of prostitution, and the city has been acquiring them by eminent domain and building new police stations, fire stations and parks in the spots.

The other thing I snapped a picture of is the statue at the top of Super Dawg, a northwest side Chicago institution, at Milwaukee and Devon avenues. The couple that own Super Dawg were regulars of mine at Nida's, a barbecue place I worked at years ago. The hot dog couple on top of the place are popular landmarks-- Bubs has mentioned them before.

Middle-Aged Friday Random Ten

I finally got new glasses this week. This was the first where I needed bifocals. Fortunately for my vanity, they've got those "no-line" bifocals.

This weekend should be crazy; I work in two irish-themed restaurants. I'm working Monday night, St. Patrick's Day, and then Tuesday morning, Adam and I are taking off to visit my parents in Tennessee.

1. It Doesn't Matter- Stephen Stills
2. Highway Kind- Townes Van Zandt
3. The Wayward Wind- Gogi Grant
4. The Broad Majestic Shannon- The Pogues
5. Have You Seen Her Face- The Byrds
6. Good Times, Bad Times- Led Zeppelin
7. Balloon Man- Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
8. Blue Jean Blues- ZZ Top
9. It's Different For Girls- Joe Jackson
10. Four Sticks- Led Zeppelin

Fur Is Bad, But Parking In the Handicapped Spot Is Okay

I laughed my ass off on this one. The person driving this car made their feelings about wearing fur clear with the license plate "NO FUR." And they made clear that they were an asshole by parking in a spot reserved for handicapped people.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Phil 'n' the Blanks!

Back in the late seventies and early eighties, there was a group in Chicago called "Phil 'n' the Blanks. They got lumped in with New Wave, but they wre mostly just a lot of fun. I got to see them once, at Chicagofest, a summer festival the City of Chicago used to host at Navy Pier in the late seventies and early eighties.

Phil 'n' the Blanks were one of the first groups to use videos. A few days ago, my friend Dan left an excited message that someone had posted the video for their very funny song "Vi-Sectomy." I've posted it for all to enjoy.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Yielding To The Inevitable

Okay, a confession: I have a notoriously bad sense of direction.

Case in point: a few years ago, Adam and I were going to visit my friend Deadspot. Deadspot gave excellent, detailed instructions to his house, which, I might add is next town over from a town I actually lived in for a summer. Yet, I missed the clearly-marked exit from the interstate (an interstate I have driven to and from my college town easily 30-35 times in my life) to the road to his house not once, but twice.

I finally got off of the right exit when my son spotted it.

The problem was that I should have had my son, The Evil Dictator navigating. Instead, I was allowing him to play a video game on his Gameboy, or read, or some other nonesense, allowing him to shirk his duties as my navigator.

Even at a young age, his sense of direction was uncanny. When he was about 2 and a half or 3 years old, we were out driving one day, doing errands and I decided to take another route to our destination, which he knew. Adam asked "Dad, why didn't you turn there?"

I came to realize that he knew various routes to places, and could tell me whether we were headed toward or away from places. At times, he knew better, more direct routes to places.

Later, it became somewhat of a problem. After his mother and I split and settled our custody issues, he went through a period in which he did not want to return to his mother's house after time at my home. I tried a subterfuge-- okay, a lie-- I told him that we were not going to his mother's home, but to one of his favorite destinations, my best friend Jim's house. As we weaved through what I thought was a sneaky and stealthy route, he became suspicious and busted me: "Hey, we're not going to Uncle Jim's house-- we're going to my mom's house!"

The final humiliating blow and proof of his navigation superiority was a couple of years ago when we were driving to my parents' home in Eastern Tennessee. I missed an exit (of course) and we had to navigate the final fifty miles or so through winding country roads in the Smoky Mountains to get there. I realized that I was becoming hopelessly confused and lost. He asked for the map, and telling me where to turn, quickly and easily navigated our way to my parents' house.

Next week, we are going to see them again. They've since moved to a new home. It's actually easier to get to, but I still had major anxiety about getting there.

I'd decided a year or so ago that due to my directional issues, I would buy a GPS system eventually, but would wait until I could get one for under $200. With our trip approaching, and my plans to possibly have a side trip or two to go to the Louisville Slugger factory (Louisville is on our route) and, if possible, meet up with Dr. Monkerstein, I may have to actually get off of the interstates. I did some research on different systems at different costs, and today I dropped by Radio Shack and purchased a Magellan Maestro 3100, a low-end, but very capable GPS system that gets good reviews, for $149.99 plus tax.

It's simple to operate, which is good; otherwise, I might have to have my son help me operate it. Or just shut the thing off and have him navigate.

This Is So Cool!

My friend Keith sent me the link to this very cool animation, showing the different components of the International Space Station (ISS), and how it is being put together.

Believe it or not, the International Space Station is not without controversy. Some think that it's a waste of money and priorities, taking resources away from more worthy projects. That may or may not be true-- to me, the jury's still out. My two cents is that there were two benefits. First, we've learned a ton about constructing large objects in space and living in space, which we can only learn about by doing them. Secondly, we've shown that people of differing nationalities, ethnicities, religions, genders, etc. can work together for an exceedingly difficult project.

The cost of the project has been a sore spot. It has greatly exceeded it's original estimates. When it is completed in 2010, it will have cost $130 Billion.

Of course, compared to $500 Billion plus for a disasterous war against a country that had done nothing to us and was no threat to us, that seems like a bargain.

Occasional Forgotten Video: Ian Hunter, "All Of The Good Ones Are Taken"

Ian Hunter is best known as the front man for the seventies group Mott The Hoople, who scored a hit with the David Bowie-penned and produced All The Young Dudes, and a smaller one with All The Way From Memphis. Hunter had a small hit on his own with Cleveland Rocks, which was used years later as the theme song to the Drew Carey show (with someone else performing it).

In 1983, at the height of MTV videomania, he scored one more hit with All of the Good Ones Are Taken.

I love this video, particularly how it lampoons the whole rock star image.

I always wondered if the butler was played by Tor Johnson, professional wrestler who appeared in number of movies and television shows, including Ed Wood's notoriously bad movie Plan 9 From Outer Space. Johnson died in 1971, so he couldn't have appeared in it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Most Scared Guy In The World

14 years ago today, I became a dad, when my son Adam was born.

One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is entitled The Defector. The plotline is about a notorius battle-hardened Romulan Admiral who attempts to defect to the Federation to avert a war (sorry to any of you who are not Trekkies-- bear with me). When pressed why someone who has spent his entire life becoming a warrior, following orders unswayingly, would defect and throw everything away, he replies that the first time he picked his newborn daughter up and she smiled, he knew he had to make the world (or universe, as it were) better for her.

It was fourteen years ago, but I remember it like yesterday, the first time I picked my newborn son up, at Columbus Hospital in Chicago. I'd never picked a newborn baby up in my life, let alone one who was my child. I remember that I was shaking like a leaf. I couldn't believe that I'd shared in bringing this little guy into the world, and that he was my responsiblity for at least the next 18 years. I was the most scared guy in the world. I'd lived my life day to day for so much of my life up to that point. I was the consummate bohemian. I had no idea how I was going to do it.

Now most of those 18 years I was so nervous about that day have passed. There are now only four years until he's an adult.

I'm happy that he and I are close. I'm happy that unlike my father and I, he doesn't fear me. I'm happy to see that unlike me at 14, he's not filled with self-doubt, anger and despair.

For my part, at risk of embarassing him, he's brought me happiness and joy that I didn't think I was capable of anymore in my life back when he was born.

My role model for cool parenting, Deadspot, despite the fact that he apparently doubts my musical taste, sent me a handmade card, which I still have, when Adam was born, telling me that I was going to be the coolest parent.

That may be the case, but in all honesty, it wasn't me. It's them. Every day of your life, they amaze you. In school, you study the "nature vs. nurture" argument. But really, in the end, despite how you think you may influence them and guide them, they influence and guide you. They bring out the best part of you, and make you rise to the occasion to be the best possible you. They challenge you, ask hard questions and in the end make you realize that like the story of the god blowing dust in the nostrils of the statue to bring life, you brought them into the world, were a little of an influence on them, but in the end, no matter how much you sacrifice for them, they were so much more than whatever you brought to the table, and that they bring you ten times more than you gave up.

Midterm Random Ten

Had a midterm in my Biology class yesterday. I think it went well. I didn't have a midterm in Chemistry, but the teacher showed us our midterm grades. I've got a B, nearly an A, in that class, so I'm pleased.

I brought my truck in to my mechanic this morning for an oil change this and to find out why the back brakes are making noise. Hopefully nothing too expensive, particularly given our car issues and expenses lately. Hopefully the first song on my Random Ten is not a prediction.

1. Breakdown Dead Ahead- Boz Scaggs
2. Chicago/We Can Change the World- Crosby, Stills and Nash
3. You Got the Love- Rufus with Chaka Kahn
4. At the Crossroads- Sir Douglas Quintet
5. Itchycoo Park- The Small Faces
6. The Rising- Bruce Springsteen
7. The Power of Positive Drinking- Lou Reed
8. I Bought A Flat Guitar Tutor- 10CC
9. It's Deafinitely- David Gilmour
10. More Than This- Roxy Music

1. A guilty pleasure.
2. A song about the Chicago 7/8 conspiracy trial-- primarily about what a farce it was.
3. Love this little nugget. Chaka Kahn's got a great set of pipes.
4. A beautiful little Doug Sahm number. Mott the Hoople did a nice cover of it.
5. The more I hear the Small Faces, the more I like them. This was their sole big hit.
6. Springsteen's tribute to the Firefighters and Police officers who were killed on 9/11.
7. A lesser-known Lou Reed song, but one of my favorites. I wish I'd come up with the line the title is from.
8. From Deceptive Bends, a guilty 70's pleasure.
9. From Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour's first solo album, which came out in 1978.
10. I can never hear this one without being reminded of the great scene in Lost In Translation in which Bill Murray sings this on karoake (see below).

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Lost Boys

One of my favorite bloggers, Natalie, had a great post today about music skipping a generation.

She observed that her student workers knew little to nothing about music from eras the she loves, the late sixties/early seventies, which she (and I) believes was a high point in music. The era was full of brilliant, diverse music that had a wide audience that crossed cultures and ethnicities. I guess I assumed that since my 69-year-old father and my 46-year-old self both love Santana, Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Motown, etc. that everybody does.

When my youngest brother got married in 1995, he called me to ask me if I knew any deejays. At one time in my life I did know a lot of them; I hung around in clubs and had a lot of friends who were deejays. By 1995, though, I was hip deep in parenthood. I did little club-hanging. I was unable to help him. No problem, he told me a couple of weeks later; his soon-to-be mother-in-law had hired a couple of young relatives to deejay the reception.

The wedding was lovely; my brother's wife is Indian-American (she was born in India, but raised mostly here). The ceremony was Christian (they'd met in a religious group), but they honored his wife's family's Hindu heritage as well.

The reception was held at banquet facility run by a popular Chicago Indian restaurant. The food was great. The photographer was great. The deejays.... well....

The "Indian Hip Hop Boys," as I was later to refer to them, were told to play lots of Motown, a favorite of my new sister-in-law. My brother asked me to take care of steering them toward the right music. I went over to them to help them plan out the playlist. I gave them a simple instruction: "Play lots of Motown." I recieved a couple of puzzled looks and a question: "What's Motown?"

At first I thought it was a joke. Most professional deejays I've ever known had a wide and deep music collection; they might have to deejay a bar mitzvah, a retirement party, a graduation party-- or a wedding reception for people in their thirties, as they were doing.

I told them "You know-- Detroit-- Barry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas."

"Oh, you mean like rap?"

"Um, no."

I sensed a potential disaster, so I told them I wanted to go through their collection and pick out what they should play. I was shocked, as I went through the collection, at the lack of depth of the collection. It was mostly hip-hop. It was totally inappropriate for the reception.

After considerable digging, I came up with, I'm not kidding, about a half dozen songs that could even loosely fit the criterion, including a Marvin Gaye tune and a Supremes song that was on a movie soundtrack. I told them to play these songs and not one other song in their collection. I knew it would be a little strange to hear the same few songs over and over again, but it would be better than having a mostly over-50 crowd subjected to a soundtrack that would be more appropriate to a college party.

Several times during the night they veered from the playlist and I had to go over and remind them of what I'd told them. After several occurences of this, I considered threatening them with violence (okay, I'd had a few drinks), but chose to use a bigger trump card; I told them that if they continued with the music that wasn't appropriate to the occasion that they weren't going to get paid. That worked wonders.

After the reception, I was amazed that these guys actually thought that they might make a living doing this. I guess as long as there are enough high schoolers and college kids needing a party deejay, they would do all right. But what really struck me was how sad it was that they were missing a huge treasure trove of some of the greatest music ever.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Clown House

Narcozoology pioneer Bubs has often warned not only of the dangers of mixing drugs and wildlife, but also of the danger of clowns. Today, my alert stepdaughter, heeding Bubs' warnings, shouted to me that there were a pack of clowns right in front of our home! I grabbed my camera to document the clown invasion.

It turns out that the clowns were pouring out of the house next door like the proverbial clown car.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.