Monday, February 19, 2018

Mark Janus Seeks the Right to Work

In so many ways, Mark Janus is a very fortunate man. He works for a state agency in Illinois—the same state that has nearly bankrupted itself gifting its employees with generous and well-fed pensions.

But that's not enough. Our poor, put-upon Mr. Janus has his knickers in a twist because he has to pay $45 a month in union dues for his membership in AFSCME.

As a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, Mr. Janus feels he should keep everything he makes. He feels he shouldn't have to pay taxes and fees and especially union dues, which is certainly interesting given the talking points his political party of choice likes to trot out.

Mark Janus should get his sewage treated, meat inspected, roads repaired and libraries stocked and staffed (not to mention his union representation) for free, but god forbid the poor, the disabled and the elderly get help with, well, just about anything.

Because that would make them freeloaders.

But conservatives like Mr. Janus wouldn't be. Got it?

In the words of Mr. Janus' lawyer, “AFSCME takes political positions that he doesn't support and advocates for more spending and higher taxes.”

I would like to invite Mr. Janus to work in the private sector, where after airing his complaint he would be told that thanks to the miracle of At Will employment, he was free to leave. Of course, Mr. Janus would never leave his public-sector job because that would mean giving up his union-negotiated salary, union-negotiated benefits and that oh-so-sweet union-negotiated pension.

Yes, Mr. Janus wants his cake and a big, giant fork.

And to be honest, so do I.

I can only dream of not paying taxes to the circus headed by Donald Trump and what I call Republicants because they stand for nothing I believe in and everything I don't. But if I want to enjoy the benefits of living in America, taxes must be paid.

Of course, this is much, much bigger than Mr. Janus and his wallet-busting union dues. It's about defunding unions and consequently, Democrats. It's about the tragically mis-labeled Right to Work statute.

Because in the addled logic of right-wingers like Mr. Janus, Democrats and unions are the enemy. Even as they provide a secure and comfortable standard of living for him.

One party rule is clearly the best path forward because even as Mr. Janus rails against the effects of prolonged one-party rule in Illinois, Republicans controlling everything forever would somehow be different.

This because businessmen would be running things.

Perhaps you know how great things were the last time wealthy businessmen were in control. The salad days of the late nineteenth-century. The Industrial Revolution.

Employment was so abundant men worked six days a week, for ten, eleven and twelve hours a day. And not just men. No sir. Those free-thinking, egalitarian businessmen opened up their factories to everyone. Even kids.

And thanks to their generous wages, upward mobility was never more prevalent. Frugal, industrious folk could save enough cash to have stew—with meat—once a week. Or dream of a visit to a cobbler and a new pair of shoes. Or buy a coffin for ma when she died during childbirth.

Yes, life was grand.

Then those goddamn Democrats and their confounded unions screwed everything up.

Thanks to their unswerving dedication to make life better for everyone (i.e. even people who didn't possess millions of dollars), people could not work seventy hours a week and still have a shot at living quarters that included light, fresh air, indoor plumbing and electricity.

They could even afford to see doctors before they died at forty-five of black lung or tuberculosis or dysentery.

But as the best and the brightest conservative minds have pointed out, this sucked.

It sucked because unlike you and me, the folks organizing labor and effectively fighting the offal in the executive wing for a fair share of corporate profits needed money to live. This is where the heresy of union dues enters the picture.

And if that weren't bad enough, some wise-ass got the idea for an urban sewage system. And another for consumer protections. And yet another for an agency that would promote public health.

And boom! We had taxes.

You have to agree this was pointless, wasteful stuff.

Through the widespread implementation of Right to Work statutes, we can—at long last—cede control to Republicans and their healthy, inclusive, we're-all-in-this-together agenda.

Anger is a very unhealthy state of being. It's what makes us cut off our nose to spite our face. It's what makes bloggers post inarticulate rants—like I did last Thursday. When we're angry our thinking is muddled. Our actions lamentable.

Do we really want to destroy unions? Do we really want to remove the checks-and-balances a two party system provides? Do we really want to hand over one-hundred percent of everything to Republicans and wealthy businessmen?

Are we really so naive?

So many things in the United States of America could be better. Our leadership. Our government. Ourselves. But throwing the baby out with the bathwater isn't the answer.

We don't burn down our houses when we discover an insect infestation. We call an exterminator. And despite my howling indignation about so many facets of twenty-first century America, I don't generally advocate for revolution.

Yeah, blowing stuff up and smashing windows is lots of fun. And who doesn't enjoy a roaring fire now and then? But in the end it mostly wastes time and energy. And the clean-up is a bitch.

Mr. Janus, the vast majority of taxes go to the public good, except in places like Illinois where the *ahem* pension obligation threatens the economic well-being of the entire state and demands an inordinate amount of tax revenue. 

Whining about higher taxes and political positions as your employer slavishly seeks to honor its pension commitment to you is questionable at best and off-the-charts hypocrisy at worst. This might be a good time to mention that Janus was a two-faced Roman god.

Take a job in a Right to Work state. And don't forget to fill me in on the details of your new compensation and pension plans.

I'll be looking forward to it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

So Awesome!

Even as we mourn—in public—the death of seventeen schoolchildren, in private we seemingly sign off on this as routinely as we check our social media accounts.

If you've ever voted Republican you've endorsed the maximum availability of guns to just about anyone who wants one. We're not supposed to consider the reason the weapon was purchased. That's not important. 

What is vital to the ongoing functionality of the United States is that is was (and is) available. Just imagine the shithole the United States would be Nikolas Cruz hadn't been able to assemble an arsenal fit for an urban SWAT team. 

The hypocrisy is as staggering as it is appalling. And of course is taken to its logical extreme by lead ringmaster Donald Trump, who courted the NRA throughout his campaign. Shut the fuck up, Donald. Shut the fuck up Republicans. Shut the fuck up NRA.

Don't ever say you're filled with remorse. Or consumed by regret.

This is what you believe in. This is what you stand for. This is what—above all else—you enable.

If we loved our kids (and each other) the way we like to say we do, the NRA would have ceased to exist a very long time ago.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018


It's winter—again. Like the time that passes between unwelcome chores, winter inspires thoughts along the lines of “Didn't we just do winter last year?”

Not that I should complain. Since the epic winter 2013/14, the last three have been very mild. A year ago saw February temps reach the sixties. And about November first, the awareness of this becomes a breeding ground for a peculiar kind of Old Testament guilt.

We haven't been made to suffer sufficiently, oh Lord. We beseech thee to bestow upon us the punishment we so richly deserve. As the ungrateful recipients of mild winters we neither deserve or even enjoy, we beseech thee oh Lord for your most unmerciful meteorological displays, that we might be made whole again in your eyes.

Echoing the neutral-to-nuclear social dynamic that currently infests our republic, daytime highs have either been forty degrees Fahrenheit or twelve. There was a munificent stretch of stress-free weather prior to Christmas that allowed shoppers to empty their wallets without the unpleasantness of wind chills, wintry mixes or winter storm advisories marring the festivities.

This was followed by a two-week spell (which neatly coincided with student's Christmas break) that saw temperatures remain below twenty. They were often far-lower. It was the longest such period in Chicago's history.

Snowfall has followed a similar pattern. It was mostly a rumor until we flipped our calendars to February. After what was being termed a snow drought, we have seen snow on three successive weekends.

This past week, it snowed every day, with massive snowfalls predicted for the weekend. This was reinforced at every turn by a panicked media, even as there were no new developments to report. We obediently rushed out and filled supermarket check-out lanes with carts stuffed with food enough to last until spring.

In the end, was there significant snow? Yes. Was it snowpacalypse? No. 

And I am grateful because that would keep me from what I enjoy most about the season: watching people drive. Yes, the first snow of the season unfailingly reminds me of a NatGeo or Animal Planet special, because watching drivers contend with it is like watching baby animals take their first steps.

There is the halting creep to a stop sign or traffic signal. Brake lights flicker as a driver tests their footing. Then there is the tenuous negotiation of a turn. And ideally, the skillful application of acceleration afterwards.

Slow ensures us that the insurance agent will remain a stranger.

Of course, it doesn't always go this way. Drivers of SUVs and pick-up trucks, armed with an inflated sense of indomitableness, feel compelled to display their vehicular-enabled superiority by passing the rest of us with barely disguised contempt.

Your patience will be rewarded when, several miles down the road, they are seen frantically dialing their phones in search of a tow truck with a winch. Even with high ground clearance and four-wheel drive, ditches, culverts and gullies don't release their captives willingly.

Amusements aside, winter is expensive. And time-consuming. Winter is a lot of work.

It requires insulated coats. Gloves. Scarves. Heavy boots. Hats. Anti-freeze. Windshield washer solvent. Scrapers. Snow brushes. Snow tires. Snow shovels. Snowblowers. Salt. Heat. Not to mention the storage space required for this when it's not winter.

We have to warm up our cars. For those of us without garages, we have to clear our cars off. Scrape windows. Walk more carefully. Drive more slowly. Put more clothes on. Take more clothes off. Leave earlier for work. And arrive home later.

We have to wash our cars more often. And clean road salt off our coats when we don't. Wash floors. And sweep unidentifiable muck from our garage floors. Can the folk who calculate what texting costs American business in lost productivity please tell us what winter costs?

But then there is a sunset painted in pewter, yellow and blue. And the pink sunrises and sunsets that sometimes follow a winter storm. The graceful curve of wind blown snow and the way it can trace the branches of a tree.

There is the distinctive crunch of it underfoot and the clarity of a chilled, star-filled sky at night. A cup of hot chocolate. The smell of cold air. And a renewed appreciation for the comforts of a warm bed.

It could be worse.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Mystery Train

It's tough to be a monopoly.

Without having to craft marketing campaigns that sway consumers to your brand, or sussing out new and better ways of doing things that keep you one step ahead of the competition, or monitoring expenses to ensure that you remain lean and mean, what the hell do you do all day?

Calculate the extent of your absolute monopoly? 

With obesity at epidemic proportions, shouldn't you be concerned that the sedentary lifestyle afforded you by your monopoly places you at risk? 

And so it is for METRA, the government-created railroad which operates Chicago's commuter trains.

In ways that would make Karl Marx proud, METRA is routinely unable to convert a rail monopoly in the nation's third-largest metropolitan area into profit. Despite the fact that 300,000 people pack their trains every day, it is not enough.

Students of history may recall the struggles of Cecil Rhodes and John D. Rockefeller to make their monopolies profitable.

(I guess this monopoly business isn't all it's cracked up to be.)

With its feckless brain trust unable to conceive of any other option, METRA looks to the private sector for inspiration. Like them, it takes the path of least resistance: for the fourth time in four years METRA has raised the cost of a ticket. And cut service.

The fourth time is always the charm, isn't it? Or something like that. (When you operate a public sector monopoly, close is good enough. Precision and accuracy are not required.)

Besides, what are commuters going to do? Ride the competition's trains?

Back in 2011, METRA tried to get out of its own way. It hired a two-hundred-seventy-five dollar an hour consultant to observe its operation and draw a conclusion or two. The consultant reported that scores of riders were riding for free, with METRA's very well-paid conductors more interested in newspapers than in the inconvenience of collecting fares.

Four fare-hikes later, I wonder if anything has changed.

As a bus driver who delivers riders to METRA stations five days a week, I am told that riding under radar still isn't the anomaly paying riders would hope. It certainly seems fair to ask what portion of these incessant increases cover conductor ineptness?

And if not that, what do they cover?

With unemployment at a twenty-first century low, ridership should be booming. METRA's cash flow should resemble the torrential flash floods seen in California. And yet it does not. Again, for the fourth time in four years METRA has its hand out.

Four times. Four years. You can't turn a profit with a monopoly? Seriously?

Having only its long-term health at heart, we the people should be demanding that METRA be placed on a low-fat diet; one rich in transparency and accountability and low in avoiding potentially unpleasant face-offs with employees and board members.

As an ardent believer in unions and mass transportation, I wince at the damage METRA does to the public perception of both.

The fraud at METRA must stop. Without the demands private sector businesses face, god knows they have the time.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Super Bowl

I admire what Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have achieved in Boston. Really.

My hometown Bears can't string together three consecutive winning seasons, much less seventeen. Ditto my once favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.

And this without the benefit of high draft picks. Belichick has consistently rebuilt through the dicey free-agency game, and if you think that's easy take another look at the Bears.

And the five Super Bowl trophies? They exist in an entirely different dimension. One the vast majority of NFL franchises have no idea even exists.

So yeah. I respect the hell out of 'em.

But at the same time, I'm tired of 'em.

It was sixteen years ago that the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. It was nice seeing the mostly downtrodden franchise get their time at the top of the mountain. They deserved it.

But if people were tired of the Bulls after a mere seven years (my co-workers in Albuquerque, New Mexico complained that NBC stood for nothing but Chicago), you can imagine the fatigue football fans feel towards the Patriots.

In sports, churn is a good thing. It keeps fan interest up, not to mention hope. We all love seeing a fresh, new champion.

Brady and company are the guests who request a drink re-fill even as the hosts are clearing away the dishes and the silverware and suppressing a yawn.

Guys? It's really time to go.

Which is why I'm rooting for the once mortal enemies of the Dallas Cowboys. Philadelphia hung together and persevered despite the loss of their all-world quarterback and haven't won a championship since 1960.

It's time.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Will Bob Nutting Walk the Plank?

JK is upset. Taking the glass-is-half-full approach, at least he cares. The ardent fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates wants the current ownership to sell the team, citing recent trades of the club's two best players as proof they are not committed to winning.

He started an online petition to rally others to the cause—and they have responded. (Not that Pirate fans don't have reason to be touchy.)

When Barry Bonds left town after the 1992 season, the Pirates went to seed. Ownership either couldn't or wouldn't spend to maintain the talented team they had assembled, and twenty consecutive losing seasons were the result. That stands as a record-setting monument to ineptness among domestic professional sports franchises.

But six years after current owner Bob Nutting purchased the team in 2007, his tenure bore fruit. The Pirates won 94 games in 2013. After a second unsuccessful trip to the post-season in 2014, the light-hitting Pirates were re-booted and morphed into a 98-win powerhouse the following year.

But they lost a one-game play-off to the Chicago Cubs, and the Pirates post-season fortunes have been buried like their namesake's treasure ever since.

For JK, the tipping point arrived last season when the team attempted to unload stellar right-fielder Andrew McCutchen at the trade deadline. He correctly viewed it as management officially giving up on this collection, presumably to begin assembling a new one.

As a Cub fan, I can empathize—deeply. The Pirates are one of the sixteen original major league baseball teams, with a history as rich and as resonant as any. It wasn't too long ago they had an exciting young team that was the envy of baseball.

They have a gorgeous (and still relatively new) ballpark set against the glittering skyline of a renewed city that has successfully recast itself as a modern metropolis trading in education, medicine and technology.

And sadly, there is the post-season history that—at least since 1979—evokes strains of Mozart's Requiem.

Take heart, JK. These aren't the dark days of the Kevin McClatchy era, where you could rightly fear MLB invoking the English Premier (soccer) League's custom of dispatching underperforming clubs to a minor league until they got it together.

Nutting has sunk capital into the franchise. He upgraded facilities and managed to put a winning team on the diamond at PNC Park. And after two decades that saw losing and austerity become entrenched like an ingrown toe nail, that is akin to turning around an oil tanker in the Panama Canal.

Kindly let me know which of these McClatchy could list on his resume.

Yes, it's painful to see talent like McCutchen and Gerrit Cole leave town. But one has only to look at my hometown Blackhawks to see the dangers of growing old with your talent—long after the window of opportunity has closed.

Now might be a good time to quote the great Branch Rickey, who after being asked for a raise by future Hall-of-Famer Ralph Kiner replied “We can finish last without you.”

Until there is evidence the team is being operated as a tax write-off, Bob Nutting deserves the benefit of the doubt. He's turned it around once—there's every chance he'll do so again.

And if you can bear one more quote, I would remind Mr. Nutting that it was no less than Oscar Wilde who observed that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Only 62 days until opening day, Pirate fans.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Concert Bummers (part 2)

With another tip of the hat to Speedy and 'So Many Roads to Ease My Soul', I present the five most disappointing concerts of my concert-going career. 

As always, comments are welcome.

5. Yo La Tengo/Buffalo Tom/My Bloody Valentine Vic Theater 6/24/92 The most telling thing about this entry is that despite the presence of Yo La Tengo and Buffalo Tom on the bill this show still made the cut.

In the right hands, volume can be a wonderful thing. It amplifies a chord or a riff or a drum beat and makes it larger than life, sort of like a Charleton Heston or Kirk Douglas monologue. It is thrilling.

In the wrong hands, it is a taser. It numbs your neural network, leaving you oblivious to any and all external stimuli. Which is kind of the point of attending a concert in the first place.

Like you, I adored My Bloody Valentine. And as a certified musiholic I leapt at the chance to see them. But after ninety minutes of being bludgeoned by a sound system more appropriate for Glastonbury than a 2,000 seat theater I was done.

If hearing loss was the point, it was a rousing success.

If hearing one of the most innovative bands of their era was, it was an utter failure.

Anyone can turn it up to eleven. Not everyone could compose a piece of music like Soon. Pity MBV opted to be the former. And every time I listen to Isn't Anything and Loveless I regret it.

4. Johnny Adams Legends 10/22/94 I was hooked on Johnny Adams from the first time I heard his spectacular 1969 rendition of Reconsider Me. It was easily one of the most awe-inspiring things I'd ever heard.

But success was hard to sustain. It was the usual story of singles and the occasional album released on small, obscure labels that disappeared without a trace. It wasn't until Adams signed with Rounder Records in 1983 that a series of fine and soulful albums began to appear that finally brought him success.

But seeing him live was another matter. However hard I scoured concert listings in those pre-Internet days, I could never uncover one for him. That is, until he landed at Buddy Guy's Legends for a weekend in the fall of 1994.

After a decade of waiting, I was beyond eager. It didn't matter that none of my mates wanted to attend—with Adams' voice for company nothing else was required. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm didn't guarantee an unforgettable show.

Adams came on and ran through a pedestrian set of covers, the nadir being Sweet Home Chicago. The *$#@! Blues Brothers have made that the unofficial anthem of Chicago, and too many performers felt obligated to perform it whether they can or not.

I hated seeing Johnny Adams join them.

A second set was marginally better, but for whatever reason it was clear that this flight wasn't going to get clearance for takeoff. Adams seemed determined to avoid the inspired material his Rounder albums overflowed with.

Never mind Reconsider Me.

I gutted out a second intermission. It was getting late. The third set began. Nothing. I conceded defeat and left.

After he died in 1998, I learned Adams had struggled with prostate cancer for years. For all I knew, he had just finished a grueling round of chemo before his appearance at Buddy Guy's. As a self-employed musician, he was likely in a financial free-fall following surgery.

I don't know. 

What I do know is that it was a very long walk to my car.

3. New Order Aragon Ballroom 11/21/86 Nothing like the burden of great expectations, is there? 

So it was for New Order when a Chicago concert date intersected with something I rarely possessed—disposable income. Truth is, after missing them in '83 and '85 I would've sold a body part. Long-addicted to the astringent synths and steely bass lines of their austere and propulsive music, I had been waiting for this show since I first heard Temptation five years hence.

So imagine my disappointment when I was greeted with an indifferent performance, an awkward, meandering set list and sound that could best be described as the aural equivalent of mud. Even for a band that traded in a certain icy remoteness, this was a chill I didn't need—especially with winter approaching.

I had been warned that New Order was a hit-or-miss proposition live, and as any experienced concert-goer knows a live performance is nothing if not a crap shoot. While the show was one of dozens for New Order on that tour, it was strictly a one night only deal for me.

I left feeling as overcast as the weather and as barren as the trees in front of the Lawrence Arms hotel.

By the time they toured in support of the disappointing Technique they had dumbed-down their sound to appeal to a broader demographic. The magic was gone. And lest I forget rule number-one of concert-going, if you don't like the new LP think twice about seeing the show.

2. Tracy Chapman/Neil Young Poplar Creek 8/16/88 I don't believe there is a more stubborn performer in rock and roll than Neil Young. Neil does it his way and damn the consequences. That he continues as an artist capable of filling arenas is a miracle given the capriciousness of audiences and their tastes.

My girlfriend and I decided that a beautiful way to pass a summer's evening would be in the company of Mr. Young, then touring in support of This Note's for You. Nearing the end of his most challenged—and challenging—decade as a performer, tickets weren't hard to come by.

While aware of the potential for disaster, I naively hoped that the signs of reemergence on his latest offering weren't a mirage.

The concert began well enough, but soon veered into a listless, indulgent quagmire from which it never recovered. Its nadir was a twenty-minute-long acoustic dirge seemingly inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh.

I recall feeling like a parent tolerating the creative excesses of their offspring at a middle school talent show. Young almost seemed to be punishing his audience by offering up the most mundane material he could muster.

The insertion of After the Gold Rush in the middle of the set almost felt like a bribe—or an apology.

When the lights came up afterwards, we all looked at each other. We were flummoxed. We hadn't a clue what to make of it. Beforehand, such a show seemed like an impossibility for someone as abundantly talented as he.

Now we knew better.

We were rewarded two and-a-half years later with a show as fiery and as passionate as this was disappointing.

As the man once said, you pays your money and youse takes your chances.

1. Bob Dylan Chicago Stadium 10/18/78 As someone who grew-up in the throes of Beatlemania, the rock and roll of the sixties influenced me greatly. The Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Who, the Kinks. The Doors, Sly & the Family Stone, Motown, Soul. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin.

Theirs was the music by which I would judge so much else.

I neglected to include Bob Dylan. He cast an enormous shadow over the sixties, and even if you maintain he didn't influence you, he probably influenced the musicians who did. He pushed the Beatles towards more introspective and topical songwriting, which in turn yielded two of their most highly regarded LPs—Rubber Soul and Revolver.

So yeah, he was a big deal.

Then he disappeared.

When he re-emerged, he was a living legend. His 1974 tour with the Band was eclipsed in media coverage by little else. And while it has its critics, it clearly renewed him. Blood on the Tracks showed up that winter, followed by Desire. They were his strongest back-to-back offerings since Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

With the creative juices flowing again, Dylan envisioned a tour. A revolving band of traveling minstrels, joining when they could and leaving when they had to. It would avoid the well-worn population centers of traditional tours and opt for out of the way venues in out of the way places.

The Rolling Thunder Review was arguably the highlight of his career. To my ears, Dylan was never more expressive a singer, nor were his rearrangements ever more effective. Surrounded by influences and peers he was loose and ready to try anything. The music was airborne and magical.

So I was beyond excited when plans for a nationwide tour were announced in 1978. I knew the Rolling Thunder Review had been retired, but its magic just had to rub-off on its successor. Didn't it?

After a train ride from downstate, my buddy and I arrived in Chicago just in time for a walk through the remnants of skid row to the old Chicago Stadium.

The glitzy, streamlined staging provided a remarkable contrast, and not only to the wizened, emaciated souls on Madison Avenue. One of rock's greatest chameleons had reinvented himself yet again.

No longer part of a band of traveling minstrels, Dylan was now a polished showman, coiffed and suited. As the show unfolded, it was hard not to feel betrayed. (And for the record, I didn't stand and yell “Judas!”)

I tried to appreciate this new incarnation of Dylan and his music, but after the soulful, ragged-but-right ecstasy of the Rolling Thunder Review this sounded plastic and rote and fake. Only an overnight wait in a downtown bus station could (and did) compete.

A recently-surfaced bootleg revealed the show wasn't quite as bad as I thought all those years ago. But at an age where passion ruled and everything was felt so keenly, I cannot forget the Dylan I didn't hear. And my disappointment upon the realization that I had been the kind of fan who put an artist into a box and expected him to stay there.