Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Death of Funeral Processions

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Former U. S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill used to say that all politics are local. And of course, he was right. In Illinois, while the legislature is – still! – playing ‘mine is bigger,’ while our Governor and Speaker bicker, not much happens. No one is solving the problems of the state, major or minor. (On the other hand, that may be a good thing considering the state of the state and the fact that every solution creates ten more problems.)

Consider the multiple layers of unnecessary government in the state. Citizens of Illinois do not need township government in addition to town, city or village, county, region, and state governments – as well as sewer districts, water districts, school districts, fire districts, library districts, junior college districts. All of them need money to function, our tax dollars. Many of them are worthy, but we could eliminate or consolidate them and save ourselves considerable opportunities for graft – as well as some of our hard earned shekels.

In the meantime, schools remain unfunded for the coming year because we lack a state budget. This lack will cost us more in the long run as school districts borrow money to continue operations and then pay interest on it.

Locally, Cook County President Todd Stroger calls for a TWO percent rise in the sales tax in Cook County to pay for his nepotism, incompetence, and inability to follow through on his campaign promises. Perhaps now that he has our attention, he’ll settle for a half a percent, almost balance his budget, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

And problems remain. And most of the problems are increasingly local. One of the problems I encountered (here I go, my Andy Rooney mode) this week was an old rural custom that needs to be adapted to Twenty-First Century urban life, the funeral procession.

Funeral processions have long been part of grieving, part of showing respect for the dead and the survivors. In the Nineteenth Century ministers conducted funeral services in people’s homes. Often houses had large, removable front windows the coffin could be carried through if the door were not wide enough. The hearse, drawn by magnificent black geldings with black plumes, moved in stately procession from the house to the cemetery, with mourners in black walking behind. After a committal [to the earth] service, pall bearers lowered the coffin into the grave and the mourners dropped clods of soil on it. This signified the passage from life into death, and gave concrete symbolism to the mourners that it was time to move on. Some people moved on better than others, of course. Abraham Lincoln had his son disinterred so he could see him and hold him again.

In the Twentieth Century we sanitized death, a tradition carried into the Twenty-First. This may make it easier to erase the lives of the deceased for those who were mere acquaintances, but probably makes it harder for the truly near and dear. We use make up to make the bodies look “natural” as they “sleep” in their coffins, complete with innerspring mattresses. Special hair dressers design new coiffures for them. They wear their glasses in the coffin, even though most people take off their glasses to sleep. We hold funerals at special funeral homes where floral scents blight the air and melancholy mood music plays softly in the background. At the cemetery the coffin rests above the grave – we never see it lowered.

Yet we persist in allowing the tradition of the funeral procession no matter what common sense tells us.

As I was running errands this week, a funeral procession far longer than most freight trains, turned on to the four lane, somewhat restricted access highway where I was driving. Like the Energizer Bunny, it kept coming and coming, stopping traffic as it ran many cycles of stop lights, confusing drivers who were about to turn or ready to cross the intersection when the light turned green.

As the procession continued, access to the highway increased in front of several strip malls. In the procession, several cars lagged, often up to a block and a half. The procession stayed in the passing lane through several intersections, violating red lights while other drivers slammed on their brakes and those several cars back honked, obviously wondering why no one moved when the light turned green.

Eventually, eight or ten cars at the end of the funeral procession formed their own sub-procession a couple of blocks behind the rest, leaving a huge gap. A light at a cross street turned green and a car pulled out. The driver of car at the front of the final group sped along, entitled to right of way and apparently oblivious to the car in the intersection. The procession driver finally slammed on his brakes and plowed towards the crossing vehicle, fishtailing over three lanes. The procession car missed the crossing one by no more than an inch. The crossing driver, no doubt shaken, got the hell out of there. She was in the wrong legally because the law that dates back many decades requires all drivers to give right of way to funeral processions.

This law allowing funeral processions, even ones with fluorescent stickers on windshields, needs revision. They are just not safe. Funeral processions are no longer appropriate in urban areas.

But nothing will happen until there is a terrible accident because our lawmakers are reactive rather than pro-active. And right now they’re having little (little is the operative word here) “sword” fights while they play ‘mine is bigger.’ The major problems in the state fall by the wayside.

And there’s no reason to suspect the minor ones will get any attention at all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Happy Birthday

Happy birthday to my wonderful wife Ann! This photo shows her "on safari" last year in Southern Illinois on an amphibian census. No one else would have put up with me for the last 40 years.

Rain, Rain Go Away

Please make your own comment at the end of this piece.

I upset some people with last week’s blog. According to statistics only ten per cent of people who get offended voice their opinions or write a comment. I got two comments taking me to task, so I project that twenty people were offended.

That’s kind of too bad. Unless people are so offended they terminate reading what I have to say. Offended is not terminal, as a colleague used to remark. I acknowledge problems in our country, and if you are a regular reader you know that I frequently point them out:
•Our president is a lame duck (lame, unfortunately, in a lot of ways) and is biding his remaining time rather than trying to solve problems both domestic and international.
•Our presidential candidates are campaigning rather than doing the jobs we pay them for (listen up, Hillary and Barack!).
•The housing market, despite the intervention of the Fed yesterday, is in the toilet and people are losing their homes left and right.
•Global warming continues to take its toll.
•We are spending ourselves into oblivion and our national debt comes to about $2,000 for every citizen, and probably about the same for those living here who aren’t citizens for whatever reason.
•The United States uses the great majority of the world’s resources despite having a minority of the world’s population.
•Bigotry exists everywhere, including within my own heart, and yours too, if you’re honest.
•We have lost too many freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
•We are inundated with trivia: frivolous lawsuits, fake celebrities, vapid awards shows, fear mongering of all sorts, you name it. And it all seems designed to keep our minds off the real issues like New Orleans’ reconstruction, the war in Iraq, decent health insurance and health care in America, economic problems, add your own list here.
•People are not allowed to be who they are, black white, yellow, purple, straight, gay, old, young, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Agnostic, Atheist, and whatever other categories available.

Be that as it may, we can regard the metaphoric glass as half empty or half full. There was a time in my life, particularly after my son Daniel was killed in a dreadful accident, that I thought the glass was empty, bone dry, and that it always would be. After years of therapy, after experiencing the love of more people than I ever deserved, I have come to see that my life is rich and full. It’s not perfect and I didn’t mean to imply that that last week.

In my own feeble way I celebrated the distance we have come in the United States, the stable inter-racial neighborhood where I now live, that at least some of the bigotry I grew up with no longer exists. What I got in response, however, were comments that I didn't set my sights high enough. Anonymous (!) said, “50% black and 50% white is just not that diverse - any hispanics, asians, gay couples, middle-easterners, singles? Yes, 50/50 is an American dream, for sure, but we should aim higher. We should aim for economic diversity in our neighborhoods. That's where the real discrimination lives: neighborhoods where everyone has a similar income. As long as the poor are concentrated in one area our children will never enjoy equal opportunities.”

I couldn’t agree more. But I can do only so much, and living in my middle class, racially mixed neighborhood is the best I can do at this point in my life. I’m not yet circling the metaphoric drain, but that point comes closer and closer. Again I point out that I am where I am in this life because of an accident of birth. I am fortunate to have been born into a college-educated, middle class family in the first half of the last century. I could just as easily have been born in Siberia and frozen to death under Stalin, been a victim of genocide in Rwanda or Kosovo, been born brain damaged or physically disabled – as could we all!

But I wasn’t. I work (in ways probably too subtle to have much effect) to make other’s lives better, and I celebrate the life I have.

Let me continue to be grateful. Don’t rain on my parade.

Friday, September 14, 2007

American Dream

Please click comments at the bottom of this blog and respond to my ideas.

I live in a dream world, the American Dream, like many middle class Americans.

If I’m too hot, I turn on the air conditioning. If I’m too cold, I turn on the heat.

If I get sick, I go to the doctor and my insurance company eventually pays the bill, occasionally after letters to them, the doctor, and my state and national congressmen. And Michael Moore. The point is not that I have to fight about so many bills, but that eventually insurance pays them (Thank you Representative George Scully for intervening twice now!).

I walk my dogs on a daily basis and take them to the Indiana Dunes State park once a week or so if I want to. Usually we go to the local dog park where most pets and their owners behave reasonably well. They run and play and bark, the dogs that is, and I walk around and around the track, picking up after them with blue plastic (scented!) poop bags that were a gift when we got the dogs. It’s not really “green” to use the bags, but certainly more appropriate than leaving piles all over the dog park. I do have a vision of archeologists several hundred years from now digging into a land fill and finding perfectly preserved plastic bags filled with doggie caca. At least they’ll know what our society values.

We have enough to eat, perhaps too much. When we are hungry we go to the grocery store or out to eat. Our garden is productive enough that I can give away tomatoes and eggplants to the local food pantry.

Last night, as part of the American Dream that we live, we went to Flavor, the restaurant in Flossmoor owned by my putative cousin, Rochelle, and her husband James. Yesterday was Jazz night, with Detour Da Funk providing wonderful, live music. Friends joined us after they got off work late, and we enjoyed being with them. Flavor feels like a wonderful family. People know each other, chat from table to table, joke, laugh, and return again and again. We certainly do. Despite the fact that we are white and the other clientele is often predominantly black.

We believe in chosen family, and years ago Rochelle introduced us as her third cousins on the mother’s side to a group of tentative white folks. I don’t know whether they felt more comfortable or not. I certainly did.

When I think about growing up in Minneapolis, where I never saw a black person, let alone had a chance to talk with one; when I think about going to high school in Decatur, IL, which was paradoxically integrated and segregated; when I think about those times, I realize how far we have come. Last night the music overtook me (as it often does), and Rochelle and I danced, the only two people on the floor, while the rest of the patrons watched. I “fired” her after a while and danced with my wife. All the while, Brandon, one of the servers watched us with the biggest, most amazing and amazed grin I have ever seen. When I mentioned his giant smile, he said, “I just didn’t know. I didn’t know you could step.”

That’s what we do when we go to Flavor, we go steppin’. My wife and I both love to dance, and we even have a small dance floor installed in our sun room. We don’t use it very often, but it’s there when we want it.

We live in an amazing suburb of Chicago, sometimes called the most segregated city in America. I don’t believe that slur. Our suburban street is two blocks long and is exceptionally stable, as far as race is concerned. Maples, elms, and oaks form a canopy over the street. We have a sorehead or two, but that’s normal and has nothing to do with race. African Americans own about half the houses. Those of us of the European persuasion own the other half. We bought our house from a black woman. Whites buy from blacks, blacks buy from whites, and no one seems to mind because residents care for their own property and keep an eye out for each other. When tree roots send the sidewalks askew, the village replaces them. If we’re out of town and a paper is delivered in error, someone puts it discretely on the front stoop. We get each others’ mail, and take each others’ garbage cans in if it’s windy. We had a block party last summer, and a collective garage sale. Everyone contributed their five bucks and participated.

We live the American Dream in large part because of a lucky accident of birth. We were born to the right parents, in the right place on this planet, at the right time in history, with the right talents, and opportunities for the snatching. Thank God.

Amen. Amen.

Friday, September 7, 2007

End of Summer

Summer is ending and I can’t say I’m sad to see it go. This year has been beastly hot, muggy, and downright uncomfort-able.

I managed to get away several times to cooler climes, and maybe that’s my problem with the heat, that and air conditioning. In June Vermont was warm, but not like August in Chicago. In Port Townsend, Washington, in July, it rained most days and was kind of clammy, but not unbearable. Last month in Klamath Falls, Oregon, we found the weather wonderful: warm during the day, cool in the evening, dry all the time, even, somehow, the day it rained.

When I was a kid we didn’t have air conditioning and we never knew the difference. If we shopped, department stores had the kind of frigid air that we don’t find much any more except that escaping from the occasional store in the Loop. We could go to the movies and find cool air, a respite from the heat. In Albuquerque, where I lived when I was a kid in the Fifties, we opened windows at night and slept comfortably, a mile high.

When I was in high school in Decatur, IL, my dad eventually installed a window unit in the living-dining room. I don’t know why he didn’t put it in the bedroom. Maybe it’s because before he bought it, he slept on the floor in front of the open front door, and he continued to sleep there because my mother was always cold.

Each fall he removed the unit from the window. The house was built into the side of a hill so that the front perched above the garage. He’d ask my mother to hold the unit from the inside while he fiddled around on an extension ladder on the outside. Invariably she’d let go to scratch her nose or light a cigarette, and the air conditioner tumbled out the window while he flailed to catch it. It would bounce, and thankfully he always held on to the ladder. It was only an air conditioner, but he’d get really angry. She’d get the giggles.

He had a similar reaction when my sister and I were small and one of us, probably her, shoved a toothbrush into the drain in the bathroom sink. Taking the trap off is not a huge chore. Fishing the clog out isn’t either, generally. My mother, who was not a stupid woman, managed to enliven things when my dad shone a flashlight up the drain pipe into the sink to see if it were clear. She took the easy way out and just turned on the faucets. I don’t know whether the water in his nose, eyes and mouth infuriated him more than banging his head on the pipes under the sink did, but in any event he was angry. Very angry.

Perhaps the fact that he never swore exacerbated the situation. He had no outlet to express his fury. Certainly the fact that she got the giggles and couldn’t stop laughing didn’t help.

They remained married until he died several years ago. I think they accumulated 57 years together. He had a lot more patience than most people I know.

But back to summer. Officially it ends in a couple of weeks. Most people consider Labor Day its close. They have jobs or go to school. I am still wearing shorts, sandals and tee shirts (no one my age or size should dress himself this way), and I probably will until it snows. I think I don’t really enjoy the encumbrance of clothes. My former daughter in law never popped in unannounced for fear of the state in which she would find me.

I’m looking forward to fall. I like the colors in the trees, the cooler weather. I enjoy winter, too. Somehow I’d much rather take the dogs to the dog park at two below than at ninety plus with a lot of humidity.

Another benefit of the end of summer is that the beaches at the Indiana Dunes state and national parks relax their prohibition on pets. I love Lake Michigan. I love to sit on the beach and listen to the waves lap on the shore, to watch the dogs race around, then scoot to the edge of the water and try to bite the little whitecaps as they roll in. I like to watch the gulls wheel in the air and then skitter down the beach as they dig for whatever it is they dig for. When the lake is calm, I skip stones across the water. And in early fall the water is warm enough to still swim in – without crowds of people.

We took the dogs to the dunes this week, and we plan to go back next week. That's Stella and Brando in the photo at the top of this essay. We took them in March, the day we got back from South America. We boarded them for eighteen days and they needed a run, as you can see.

Have a nice end of summer. Enjoy the fall. And be sure to comment below.