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» 2012 » September

Monthly ArchiveSeptember 2012

Commentary 27 Sep 2012 10:58 pm

Short-lived return to Chick-fil-A

The course of true chicken-sandwich love never did run smooth.

Like many supporters of basic human rights, I ended my boycott of Chick-fil-A last week when the media reported that the company would no longer fund organizations opposed to same-sex marriages. A statement from Chick-fil-A that it would divorce — pun intended — its giving practices from groups with “political agendas” was good enough for me, at least in the moment.

Yet I had a feeling the company wouldn’t so easily walk away from a deeply rooted belief, even when the Almighty Dollar — the only force in the world that could compete with the Almighty in the eyes of most conservative businessmen — was at stake. (A Chicago alderman had vowed to fight Chick-fil-A’s expansion into the Windy City as long as it supported an anti-gay agenda.)

But I didn’t want to research the matter too deeply until after I’d eaten the chicken. Chalk it up to a moment of weakness before you cry foul — or fowl.

Giving up Chick-fil-A has been a challenge: I like the chain’s food and love the way it trains its employees. I can walk into any Chick-fil-A restaurant anywhere in the U.S. and be greeted warmly by intelligent, well-trained employees who seem to actually care about what they are doing. That’s not the case with other fast-food franchises, and when it is, it’s more the exception than the rule.

Although I’m not a religious person, I support Chick-fil-A’s decision to be closed on Sundays because it gives associates a well-deserved rest, a chance to be with family and an opportunity take care of personal business. It also, I suspect, contributes to their positive demeanor the other six days.

I don’t even mind the openly religious music pumped through the restaurant because I can hear it only when I’m in the restroom and because it’s very tapioca-bland and not much worse than most country-western or Top 40 pablum. And with the water turned on or the toilets flushing, I can’t really hear the lyrics, anyway.

But when news broke in July about the millions of dollars that the company’s WinShape foundation had given to groups whose hate-speech is constitutionally protected — organizations such as the Marriage and Family Foundation and Focus on the Family — I knew I had to put my money where my mouth is (or was). No more Chick-fil-A.

I had no delusions of economic grandeur about my boycott. My $10 every month or so wasn’t going to make or break the company, and my rantings on Facebook and Twitter to a few hundred friends and associates weren’t going to light much of a fire either.

Yet even as I celebrated Chick-fil-A’s alleged change of heart last week by ending my boycott and darkening the door of one of its restaurants again, The Advocate reported that the company sponsored a WinShape Ride for Family fundraiser, urging supporters to donate directly to the Marriage and Family Foundation, which cozily shares an address with the Chick-fil-A headquarters in Atlanta.

And one day after ending my forced fast, CEO Dan Cathy offered assurances to Mike Huckabee — conservative politician, talk-show host and organizer of a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day this summer to allow haters to show their support — that nothing had changed and that he and his company were still “guilty as charged” when it came to their opposition to gay rights.

So it’s back to the forced sabbatical from Chick-fil-A for me.

I recognize that I, like many Americans, am a hypocrite when it comes to spending in support of civil liberties. Each year, the Human Rights Campaign publishes the Corporate Equality Index, which ranks companies based on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender practices and policies, and many of the places with which I do business score poorly. Among them: Bed Bath & Beyond, Berkshire Hathaway (parent company of Dairy Queen), Big Lots, Dish Network and Radio Shack.

Beyond LGBT issues, I should also stay away from Walmart, which gets almost all of my grocery budget despite predatory-pricing policies and a poor track record with labor and wages; Apple, which has become my computer and smartphone company of choice despite allegations of sweatshop labor in overseas factories; and, where I spend hundreds of dollars each year even though it treats warehouse associates like dogs during peak seasons and skirts sales tax in most states.

If I keep doing business with these companies and others like them, why don’t I keep eating at Chick-fil-A? I don’t have a good answer to that, other than the rather lame rejoinder that everybody has to draw the line somewhere, and I guess this is mine.

Besides, my sandwich was kind of cold last week and the employees weren’t as nice as I remembered. That makes it easier not to be a chicken and take a principled stand.

Originally published Sept. 27, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Music 20 Sep 2012 10:23 pm

Ageism is blowin’ in the wind

Bob Dylan is still fighting for equality, but maybe senior citizens should be his new oppressed group.

In a compilation of reviews for Dylan’s newest album, “Tempest,” Randy Lewis of the L.A. Times notes the many reviewers who mention the singer’s voice, which sounds like he’s been gargling with Drano and rock salt. Lewis might just as easily have counted the critics who reference Dylan’s age — virtually all of them — and those who marvel that a 71-year-old still can make potent music in the third act of his life.

A not-so-subtle ageism is at work here. Amid all the five-star write-ups of a solid Dylan album is an undercurrent of amazement that somebody over the age of 60 can do more than sit in a corner and mumble incoherently about days gone by.

Singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole, in a positive review of “Tempest” for Salon, writes that he wept tears of joy that Dylan, at his age, could still pen lyrics like, “Last night I heard you talking in your sleep,/Saying things you shouldn’t say,/Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.”

First of all, in the annals of Dylan lyrics, those don’t rank with anything from “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde” or “Blood on the Tracks.” They’re not bad, by any means, but they certainly aren’t the second coming.

Secondly, why is it remarkable that somebody in his 70s could write this? Because Dylan dallied with drugs so much that each coherent sentence is a miracle? Or is Cole shocked that a 71-year-old still has somebody to sleep with, and, by implication, is still sexually active? I don’t know. But Cole ends his piece marveling that Dylan still loves his day job, which he again links to his age and finds “great.”

Bloomberg’s Mark Beech isn’t quite as high on the album, but notes, “Still, it’s good that, at 71 years of age, Dylan still is writing, touring, recording some fine music, growling away and probably not caring what anyone else thinks.” Guess it’s better than a nursing home. A headline in the Wall Street Journal asks, “Can Your Non-Retirement Rock Like Bob Dylan’s?”

Maybe this age shock among critics is because popular music these days — and by “these days” I mean both before and after Dylan changed the landscape of pop music forever — is primarily made by the young and for the young. In an ever-moving treadmill, callow artists glide into the limelight, crank out a few hits, then recede backstage to finish their careers in obscurity, playing state fairs and bar mitzvahs and maybe releasing an album of cover tunes every few years. Only a handful remain in the public eye for any length of time, and of those, only a small fraction remain relevant.

Nicholas Delbanco, author of “Lastingness: The Creative Art of Growing Old,” studied the lives of several artists whose creativity continued later in life, among them Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who was in his 80s and practically blind when he painted his masterpiece “Water Lilies”; author John Updike, who continued writing and publishing into his 70s and still found the blank page “a site of hopeful possibility”; and Giuseppe Verdi, who composed operas well into his 80s.

In a 2011 interview, Delbanco told National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel that many more masterpieces throughout history have been created by the under-40 than the over-40 set. “I mean, if you’re a baseball player or a ballerina, you kind of know that your career is over by the age of 40, and you certainly wouldn’t begin in at that point,” he said. “But in terms of subject matter … there’s no intrinsic reason why an artist couldn’t grow with age. But it’s happened so relatively rarely that I thought I would puzzle it out in this book.”

Delbanco notes that life expectancy and health issues impact the issue considerably. Now that people live longer and healthier lives than previous generations, more people accomplish major milestones at ages that would have raised eyebrows only a few decades earlier.

Witness any number of septuagenarians and octogenarians who celebrate milestone birthdays by skydiving or riding motorcycles. In April, the world’s oldest marathon runner, Fauja Singh, retired after completing the London Marathon in under eight hours. He was 101.

In a world where senior citizens regularly work years after retirement age, volunteer prodigiously, serve the public in elected positions, golf, bicycle, cartwheel and hang-glide, shouldn’t we all be offended when somebody’s accomplishment — be it album, quilt, samba or statute — is accompanied by surprise over his or her age?

I hope Dylan keeps delivering records well into his 80s and 90s, and that as he does, critics judge his singular music on its own merits, without filtering it through a calendar. The times, they are a changin’, indeed.

Originally published Sept. 20, 2012 in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 14 Sep 2012 07:53 pm

9/11 conspiracies

A scientist travels back in time to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, to warn her husband, a risk-management consultant working at the World Trade Center, of the impending attacks.

That’s the plot of “The Big Lie,” a comic book by Rick Veitch and Gary Erskine published last year to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.

The husband and his co-workers are skeptical, but allow the scientist to present her evidence, stored on an iPad, a device that didn’t exist 11 years ago. Predictably, the men are more taken by the tablet than by the images of planes hitting the very building they are in, dismissing the video as an elaborate forgery by a big-name movie director for a project they are working on.

The story follows a trajectory very familiar to fans of O. Henry or “The Twilight Zone” and would be enjoyable — if tasteless — except for the inclusion of various alternate theories about why and how the buildings were destroyed.

Much of this “evidence” is cobbled together from what could be termed the Conspiracy Theorist’s Playbook. Accordingly, the Sept. 11 attacks were orchestrated by highly placed members of the Bush administration who adhered to elitist philosopher Leo Strauss’ belief that “what the world needed was a return to American imperialism at any cost.” The U.S. government ignored warnings from various national security sources and allowed the attacks to occur, thus providing Bush with an excuse to invade Iraq.

Veitch spends much time discussing a linchpin of these alternate theories, that the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings could not have been caused by jet planes alone, but required controlled demolitions, i.e., strategically planted explosives.

At the center of this belief is World Trade Center Building 7, a 47-story skyscraper that toppled hours after the initial attacks. Any number of websites theorize that the building’s destruction appeared to be a controlled demolition and that the debris (which was quickly removed and destroyed) indicated the presence of thermite, used in incendiary bombs.

I have no love of the Bush administration or how it piggybacked on 9/11 to reduce American freedoms and increase our presence overseas, but the thought that he or his handlers orchestrated a direct attack against the American people beggars the imagination and cannot be supported by evidence.

We are talking, after all, about politicians, appointed officials and public employees, who seldom demonstrate the closed-mouthedness necessary to keep secrets for long. If one or more of them had been in bed with terrorists or involved in wiring buildings with explosives, somebody or somebody’s mistress would have talked. The fact that nobody did is significant.

Separate reports by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology confirm that jet fuel from the planes was sufficient to weaken the Towers’ steel frames. That, and combustible materials inside the buildings, made it hot enough for the structures to collapse.

Similarly, the destruction of the smaller Building 7 is also explained by a 2008 NIST report that blames falling debris from WTC 1, seven hours of uncontrolled fires raging among building furnishings, and sprinkler-system failure.

(A good source of reliably vetted information is a Popular Mechanics cover story originally published in March 2005 and freely available at the magazine’s website as a teaser for the full-length “Debunking 9/11 Myths,” updated last year.)

When I read material like “The Big Lie” or accounts of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and other public figures that weave sticky webs of complicity, I’m reminded of a troubled woman who showed up at The Review offices in the days after 9/11. She was carrying receipts from a local store for photocopies she had made the week before. Numbers, letters and words were circled — proof, she was convinced, that God had given her a premonition, but that she had missed the signs and was guilty of all those deaths.

Some people cannot accept that the simplest explanation for an event that accounts for all, or most, of the facts is likely the correct explanation. With 9/11, some Americans struggle to believe that ordinary, nondescript people with deluded mindsets planned and executed the deaths of thousands. But they did. They and their warped ideologies are solely to blame.

Layers of bureaucracy hindered the United States intelligence community from recognizing warning signs and stopping the attacks, but this was determined mostly by Monday-morning quarterbacking and hindsight. We’ve fixed many of those problems in the last 11 years and are now better equipped to move and act.

At some point, evidence may surface to lend credibility to some of the loopier theories about 9/11. Until then, however, they remain fodder for the fringe, the stuff of big-budget summer thrillers and comic books, and not a productive way to honor the lives lost 11 years ago this week.

Originally published Sept. 13, 2012 in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 06 Sep 2012 06:23 pm

Charting a course

Do you have a blueprint for the rest of your life?

At the beginning of each school year, I invite freshmen and seniors to create one. My 100 Goals assignment urges students to draft 100 long- and short-term goals, select the top 10 and then write an essay about their No. 1 goal.

Like most good ideas, it isn’t mine. It comes from a book called “Character Matters” by Thomas Lickona. He even uses the expression “blueprint for the rest of your life” that I shamelessly stole for my lead.

It doesn’t matter who thought of it. The values-clarification is what counts — that, and getting kids to think past what’s for lunch and start considering the rest of their lives. Having just spent three hours poring over the final results, I can announce with confidence that, in the words of The Who — since I’m stealing, anyway — “the kids are alright.” (Apparently, nobody told the band that the two-word “all right” is the preferred spelling.)

Most students start the assignment certain that I am crazy, that they can’t possibly articulate 100 wannabe accomplishments. I’m gratified that most manage just fine, and some even whip up more than the required number. (They still think I’m crazy, however.)

Here is just a sampling from more than 1,300 goals that have crossed my desk in the past week. My goal is to …

Stop letting people get to me. Find a muzzle big enough for my sister’s mouth. Own an endless supply of Twizzlers. Say the most random thing in public. Learn to use chopsticks.

Take a bath in money. Stand on the Great Wall of China. Own a pink Camaro. Graduate summa cum laude. Become an extreme couponer. Be in a food fight. Grow spiritually. Zipline in South America.

Shoot par in a round of golf. See a double rainbow. Find the end of a rainbow. Make wool-free Uggs. Make my parents proud of me. Stop throwing up at cross-country meets. Wrestle an alligator. Swim in all the Great Lakes. Take care of my grandma.

Learn 100 digits of pi. Win an eating competition. Visit the real 221B Baker Street. Find something Duct tape can’t do. Own a teacup pig. Get crazy at a very important meeting. Learn to use chopsticks.

Treat my parents better. Bow-hunt a bear. Ride a cow. Stand up for myself more. Quit biting my fingernails. Not drink pop (soda) for one year. Be punked by Ashton Kutcher. Perform in a Shakespearean play. Go backpacking in a rainforest. Be a better listener. Cook like my mom.

Delete my Facebook page. Stop complaining so much. Pray every morning and night. Go out of my way to meet new people and make new friends. Send food and supplies to the troops. Exercise daily. Make sure everyone has a home. Catch the wabbit.

Stop caring what other people think. Own a cute puppy. Scream “You ain’t got no pancake mix!” during a fight. Visit the University of Michigan with my mother and spit on their campus. (She graduated from OSU.)

Help juvenile delinquents become better people. Play music in a presidential inauguration. Learn CPR. Donate a kidney. Donate blood. Visit the Louvre. Never lose the child inside. Never change who I am for somebody else.

I was going to write how great it is to work daily with a segment of the population for whom the future is filled with unlimited potential, but then I realized that we all have that same potential, hidden though it may be beneath obligations of work, home, family, mortgages and those bald tires on the car.

We should all have 100 goals, regardless of age, regardless of situation. My own list was drafted back in 2005. It’s probably time for a revision.

The assignment is pretty self-explanatory, but if you’d like a copy of the various categories I share to make the writing easier, send me an email. If you send me a list of goals, I might even use some in a future column, thereby fulfilling one of my goals: to make other people do my work.

As for the kids, they’re definitely going to be all right. Except maybe for the one who wants to scream about pancake mix during a fight. Him, I’m not too sure about.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Sept. 6, 2012, in The Alliance Review.