09 June 2010

An ending, a start

After keeping this blog for nearly two and a half years, I have decided to close it for now and move on to another project. I've started "The Post-Punk Dad," a blog contrasting fatherhood with a punk rock past, at:


Thanks to the three of you who read this, and please keep reading!


12:12 p.m. 9 June 2010

27 May 2010

The meaning of Memorial Day seems to be missing in action

The old man walked up to the three of us and squinted up from beneath his visored baseball cap.
“So what goes on in here, then?” he asked, motioning to the ugly newspaper building we worked out of.
I looked at the writing on his hat. It read “U.S.S. Darke APA-159 Tokyo Bay 1945.” My mind jumped into action. Imperial Japan surrendered to the United States Sept. 2, 1945, after the dropping of the two atomic bombs. And this man was there to see it.
“So how close were you to the U.S.S. Missouri when the Japanese delegates were on board for the surrender,” I asked.
He didn’t even blink.
“Oh, I’d say a block or so,” he replied.
His name was Burt Falk, and in his youth, he’d served on the U.S.S. Darke, a 455-foot attack transport that earned two battle stars during its time in the Pacific. It took part not only in the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but also practicing for the planned invasions of the Japanese home islands.
During the ensuing 25-minute conversation, which meandered between fishing and war stories, Falk showed us his Navy dog tag (“Not the real one. Some idiot from Hopkins lost that one when we were doing the landing on Iwo”) as well as a tattered airmail letter that had a commemorative stamp from Tokyo Bay.
My seemingly random encounter with Falk reminded me of something important. Memorial Day in the minds of many people equals a Monday off with a good chance of barbeque over the weekend. In fact, one of the staff blogs at the newspaper started correctly, with the assertion that Memorial Day is under-appreciated, but in the wrong direction from there: “Memorial Day is an exciting time because it marks the kick-off of summer activities.”
The column (here) goes on to say that the holiday also kicks off the summer garage sale season and that we should all de-clutter our homes because “In a way, we are no different than the dung beetles.”
An excuse for a sale. A chance to watch the Indy 500. A good reason for a barbeque. “A kick-off for summer activities.” Am I missing something?
The roots of this holiday are darker, stained with the blood of soldiers and the tears of those left behind. It originally began as Decoration Day, when relatives of soldiers lost in the Civil War paused to remember the husbands, fathers and sons who had fallen in the service of their county. Over the years, it gradually developed into what we now recognize as Memorial Day, which was declared the official name of the holiday in 1967.
Several veterans’ organizations have been trying to undo to change Congress made to the holiday in 1971, when it was changed from a specific day (May 30) to a weekend with the National Holiday Act. A 2002 Memorial Day address from the VFW stated: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
I agree.
We owe these men and women our thanks. Many towns have remembrances of various scales. I wonder how many people attend. I know I shouldn’t throw stones, as I’ve not actually attended one of these events, but I have at least realized they exist, and find it sad that people can’t crawl away from the air conditioning for just a few minutes to honor those who made the entire day possible.
I wonder what Falk will do to celebrate. Personally, I think he’ll go fishing.
“One day, they came over the loudspeaker on the ship, and said, ‘The war is over. We dropped the a-bomb,’” he recalled. “The guys and I just laughed. We misheard them. We said to ourselves, ‘What do you mean, a [as in ‘single'] bomb? How dumb do you think we are?’”
Falk told us his memory was failing. He couldn’t remember his daughter’s wedding or his current phone number, but could remember the complex formula for U.S. navy gunpowder, a memory as fresh as the day it was created in July 1942.
“Why do I remember that,” he said, gently tapping his forehead. “What good is that doing to do me?”
The U.S.S. Darke was withdrawn from service in 1995 and sent to the breaker’s yard in 1974. Some day, Falk will be gone too, taking his story with him.
Memorial Day is designed for men like Burt Falk. It’s the one day of the year we are actually asked to recognize veterans, both living and dead, and to give them the thanks that is their due, even if in passing thought only. It’s not an excuse for a barbeque, a sale or a multi-hour race, because without men like Burt Falk, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy those freedoms in the first place.
I’m not saying not to have fun or enjoy the extra time – but at least remember how it was bought and paid for. I think our vets would enjoy nothing less.

25 May 2010

Re-purposing of old church building combats 'real-estate Disney World' mentality

I stood in the back of St. Joseph's Catholic Church with my parents, a 9-year-old in a pair of grey slacks, a navy blazer and, insult to injury, a tie.

As we started down the blaze orange carpet heading towards the altar, I could feel hundreds of eyes on me, and I felt like I was going to melt into my penny loafers. I fought the rising panic.

“Just look holy, look up at Heaven,” I repeated multiple times to myself, trying to remember to put one foot in front of the other. I felt a full foot shorter by the time I reached the front of the church, and stared up at Father Francis Roach’s benevolently bespectacled face before accepting my First Communion. My walk up to the front had been the hard part; I'd inadvertently learned what it must like to be a bullfighter.

Twenty-one years later, I stared down at the same piece of ground I’d trembled on years earlier while doing a story on the church becoming an arts center. The orange carpet was gone, uncovering old black-and-red tiles I had never known were there. The whole floor was much the same, stripped of pews and carpet left with bare wood floors worn thin by the constant traffic of dress shoes and intentions. It was as if the workmen had literally peeled off the decades with each layer of flooring removed.

My professors in journalism school always stressed the need for detachment with the stories I cover and the people I interact with. Most of the time, I completely agree that this is necessary, but when it comes to St. Joe's, it’s hard to completely free myself from part of what formed me. I went to its school, had my first communion there and spent nearly every Sunday morning of my childhood in its pews, pretending desperately that I was someplace else.

Still, when the church moved to a new building in 2002, I felt I’d lost something. I felt I’d lost a comforting place that had never changed, some idyllic reflecting pool in the midst of life’s sometimes-chaotic whitewater rapids. The new St. Joe's building was beautiful and well made, sure, but it just wasn’t the same. There was something about being around so much living history that made the messages I heard somehow resound a little deeper.

I'm glad I've been able to return to both the school and the church in this career to document the changes taking place. After years of living in the suburbs, I've determined that "heritage" is something that gets destroyed in the process of expansion, with old farmhouses being churned into the ground to make room for more strip malls that will become blight 20 years down the road.

Later, when people share the assumption that something of value had been lost with the torn-down farmhouse, clever development companies come in and make exorbitantly expensive idealized versions of what once was, coating them in pleasant little names like "Heritage Oakes." It's a real-estate version of Disney World, contributing to the nonsense idea of some sort of mythical small town America that has never existed outside the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalog. It's Lake Wobegon at a higher price point.

In the case of the old St. Joe's building, it's good to see that people sometimes have enough foresight to hang on to their past and find a way to carry it into the future. And at a price tag that everyone can afford.

Walking towards the entrance, I looked town and saw a scrap of familiar blue carpet in a trash pile. I remembered the shade well. My family and I had gone on vacation in the summer of 1991, and when we returned, the blaze orange carpet was gone, replaced with a resplendent shade of royal blue. It sounds silly now, but the change excited me, and made the old church look somehow more regal.

"Looks like you've found something for your scrapbook," my guide said, smiling.

Think of it like a molting from a snake, or a cocoon from a butterfly – it's the shedding of a past life on the way to a new one. It's the kind of metamorphosis I'd like to see happen more often.

21 May 2010

Review: "A Plague Upon Humanity" outlines real-life weapons of mass destruction us - 65 years ago

Ironically, wartime sometimes brings out the best in human ingenuity while simultaneously bringing out the worst in the limits of our cruelty.

War is sometimes the source of some of most important inventions in human history. World War II-era inventions that still impact our everyday lives include the jet engine, radar, some of the first computers, synthetic rubber and penicillin.

Another World War II-era invention doesn’t seem to be as widely known in the United States, but it had quite an impact among civilians in other parts of the world. Before and during the war, Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731 developed biological warfare agents and not only tested them civilians, including Allied prisoners of war, but released them into the general Chinese public, killing between as many as 1 million people. Compounding the shame, most of the perpetrators of these crimes not only went unpunished, but some even ended up sharing their discoveries with the United States in return for immunity.

The whole story is outlined in “A Plague Upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program,” a 304-page by Daniel Barenblatt. While I knew the facts of the program and what it produced, I was unprepared for the utter dehumanization that went along with the development process. As Barenblatt outlines in the book, prisoners were not only infected with diseases like bubonic plague, they were often dissected alive so scientists would have the freshest results to view.

“When I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming,” a 72-year-old former medical assistant told the New York Time’s Nicholas Kristof. “I cut him open from the chest to the stomach and he screamed terribly and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”

Not only did these scientists develop bubonic plague, typhoid, anthrax and cholera, they bred fleas and rats to spread them along with specialized bomb cases for germ warfare attacks. Japanese soldiers would poison village wells, or distribute candy laced with germs to children. Barenblatt asserts that rats in China still test positive for antibodies to the Japanese-developed plague germs nearly 65 years after the end of the war.

Japan didn’t limit the scope of its bio-weapons attacks to the Chinese mainland. The Imperial Japanese Navy developed some of the largest submarines in the world during the war, equipping some with hangars to launch several aircraft on a one-way mission. Another excerpt from the Kristof piece:

“Toshimi Mizobuchi, who was an instructor for new recruits in Unit 731, said the idea was to use 20 of the 500 new troops who arrived in Harbin in July 1945. A submarine was to take a few of them to the seas off Southern California, and then they were to fly in a plane carried on board the submarine and contaminate San Diego with plague-infected fleas. The target date was to be Sept. 22, 1945.”

Sept. 22. Slightly more than one month after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

According to ww2pacific.com, an Allied War Crimes Tribunal brought 30 people to trial in March 1948. Charges included vivisection and wrongful removal of body parts. Twenty-three were found guilty of various charges, and five were sentenced to death. None of the death sentences was carried out, and by 1958, all the convicted were set free.

When the war ended, Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself requested that the Japanese scientists be exempted from prosecution.

“Information about vivisection useful," he allegedly explained in a 1947 radio message.

So, as it did in Nazi Germany, the U.S. made another deal with the devil, sparing punishment in exchange for information. Shiro Ishii, the mastermind behind Japan’s bio-weapons program, allegedly worked on bio weapons in Maryland. Another, Dr. Masaji Kitano, led Japan's largest pharmaceutical company.

While Japan wasn’t the only country to develop bio weapons during the period, it stands out not only from the extensive use of human subjects, but also because the products were actually used on a pretty widespread basis.

Barenblatt’s book wasn’t an easy read. It was a mixture of dry historical facts and incredibly disturbing passages about incomprehensible human suffering. But knowing about what Unit 731 did is important, if only to give perspective.

Japan seems more than willing to play to victim when it comes to the suffering of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but remains mute when it comes to the suffering its own forces inflicted on civilians in the territories it occupied and the civilians it would have attacked in the U.S. if given the chance. Books like the one Barenblatt wrote remind us that there are both victims and perpetrators on every side involved in a world war – something Japan itself seems loathe to officially admit.

20 May 2010

Thirty years of puppets, probe droids and paternity: "The Empire Strikes Back"

Things don't always go your way. Sometimes, you do your best to hide in the garbage dumped by an Imperial Star Destroyer only to be tracked to Cloud City by a persistent bounty hunter. Other times, you do your best to prove yourself only to end up losing limbs and discovering unpleasant genealogical truths along the way. Some days, sometimes you find out the hard way that the carbon freezing process does indeed work on humans – namely, you.

Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the world finding out that Darth Vader was really Luke Skywalker's father. That's right – "Empire Strikes Back," the second film in the hugely successful "Star Wars" trilogy (yes, I saw "trilogy" – those other three don't count) was released in theaters May 21, 1980.

That's not true. That's impossible! Thirty years?? To quote some dialogue from the film:

"Search your feelings. You KNOW it be true."


I don't remember the first time I'd ever seen "The Empire Strikes Back" in its entirety. Being born less than seven months before it came out precluded me from seeing it in theaters. I likely caught it as a movie-of-the-week on network television. Even at a young age, the movie's highs and lows were legendary among the kids of Hemlock Court: Darth Vader being revealed as Luke Skywalker's father; Han Solo being frozen in carbonite and taken by the mysterious Boba Fett; and of course, the introduction of the benevolent, linguistically scattershot Jedi master, Yoda.

My appreciation for "Empire" really didn't start when I was a kid. Sure, it had some cool parts, but the Death Star trench run of the first film and the Ewoks from the third seemed to captivate me more as a young boy. As I grew, however, so did my appreciation for "Empire," and in time, I found it to be my personal favorite.

The reason? Simple. It's dark. Really dark. Basically, everything bad that COULD happen to the Rebels DOES happen to the Rebels. Hoth attacked? Check. Han Solo put in to carbonite to face an uncertain future? Check. Luke Skywalker not only losing a hand but also finding out that he's the scion of the most evil man in the galaxy? Check.

The tone is a marked departure from the breezy optimism and fun of the first film, and serves as a weight counterbalance to the admittedly lighter third film, which according to Randall from the movie "Clerks" just had a bunch of Muppets.

"Empire" taught me a valuable lesson I can't recall seeing in many other movies of the era: the good guys don't always win. Coming from an time when children's programming was saturated with saccharine messages about inevitable personal success by the time the credits rolled, "Empire" seemed a refreshing dose of doom and gloom. Its message of triumph from the fact that our heroes were determined not to give up in the face of everything that had gone wrong. It's a good message to learn, and one that is more relevant in a period where a whole hell of a lot is going wrong.

So happy birthday, "Empire." I can't wait to show you to my kids and see the look of quizzical disappointment on their faces when the movie doesn't end the way they thought it would. After all, life is sometimes like that, too.

17 May 2010

Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons - Why I Detest "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"

I only needed to hear a few seconds of the audio track coming from the TV in the other room before I made a dash into the viewing area. Alas, I was too late.
“It’s just ‘The Simpsons,’” my wife scowled as the changed the channel. “It’s on like, every day, all the time.”
Her fingers worked the buttons on the remote, and eventually, the screen was filled with Ty Pennington’s smiling face.
Time to leave.
My wife and I agree on many important things, but when it comes to television, we are night and day. My wife, you see, happens to really like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” ABC’s home remodeling show that has produced 162 episodes during seven seasons. The basic premise is that Ty and his diverse crew of lovable re-modelers will send a deserving family on vacation and re-build them a new home, often with modifications for disabilities, in a week. The families, from what I’ve seen, also have medical bills and mortgages paid, and sometimes receive cars.
I have no doubt that the needs of the families on the show are genuine. What I take issue with is how the entire thing is presented. It reinforces the same sort of “deus ex machina” moral portrayed in CBS’s “Undercover Boss.” In TV land, people who have problems are helped only when someone with far more power than they (like a television network) swoops in to fix the wrongs. Unfortunately, it’s about as likely as winning the lottery.
What bugs me the most about “Makeover” is the sort of ham-handed sentimentality that drapes everything in the proceedings. The warm fuzzies culminate in the citizens of whatever no-name town the build is happening in to come over a hill wearing matching t-shirts with stirring music playing, ready to tear down the house.
“When we heard about the [blank] family’s troubles, we just couldn’t stand by and do nothing,” a resident will say.
Really? How coincidental that your desire to help just happened to occur when a major network is filming a television show on the same family! Remarkable! It almost makes me forget that if your town really had its act together, and really cared like you claim, Ty Pennington and crew would have never heard of it. There would be no need for “Extreme Makeover” to even be here, because the Johnsons wouldn’t have to be living in a cardboard box near a pig farm. You would have already taken care of them.
The homebuilders who get some face time are just as cloyingly humble, mumbling memorized statements about building the house on behalf of the blah-blah company. “Makeover” is really nothing more than business PR disguised as do-gooding. Next time you watch the show, pay attention to how many needless close-ups of brand names there are during the build process. Once you notice, you can’t ignore it. Also, Ty seemingly never forgets to mention “the good folks at CVS Pharmacy” who pay peoples’ medical bills, or Ford, who donates cars.
“Makeover” is a prime example of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. How many people, I wonder, would show up to build this house were the cameras and fanfare not present? And how many write-offs do businesses, ranging from contractors to Sears, get in the process? In “Makeover,” everyone wins: the family, ABC, Ty Pennington, volunteers and the corporate donors.
Building a house for a family in need is an admirable thing, but when was the last time you saw Habitat for Humanity workers on prime time every Sunday night? Somehow I can’t feel dirty after watching “Makeover,” as the exposure seems to contradict the inherently invisible humility in giving:
Matthew 6:2 – “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.
“And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

14 May 2010

Life's many blessings, and how easily they are forgotten

The Ford pick-up's driver couldn't make up his mind, and obviously didn't see me behind him in the adjacent lane. The F-150's bulk began to drift closer as we both pulled up to the stoplight. At the last second, he realized the error, and corrected course. By this point, with eight hours of work and three hours of class under my belt for the day, I was too exhausted to really care.

I've been taking a class on business communications at the University of St. Thomas' Minneapolis campus. While it has been helpful (reminding me that I went into journalism for a reason), the three-hour classes preceding Friday deadline days are wearing me down. There are two more sessions left, and I will be glad to have Thursdays back soon.

When the latest class on creativity ended, I grabbed my stuff and practically RAN to the car. My mind drifted as I slowly wound the Sunfire down a set of narrow ramps leading me to the exit of the Spartan concrete parking garage. I paid for my time, and took a right onto the now traffic-free downtown street. The F-150 and I got acquainted, and I sat at the red light, feeling my eyes glaze over in the LED glare.

While we were waiting, I saw some shadows moving out of the corner of my vision. It was a man carrying a duffel bag, and two boys (twins?), who looked about three or four years old. It was 9:30 on a Thursday night; what were they doing out on the streets so late? My eyes traveled back to the father, and then to the small duffel bag in his right hand.



It was easy to imagine that they were headed towards some sort of shelter. If the kids were concerned, they didn't seem to show it in their body language, following their father in the sort of trusting way that kids do. The father had his head down as he purposefully strode down the street and into the darkness, each brisk step taking him past the school edifice that I'd unappreciatively come from.

Comparisons made me feel silly. Here I was in nice clothes, in a decent car, on my way home to a beautiful wife and daughter in a quiet neighborhood. How dare I complain about having a long day?

I kept driving south, making my way over to Interstate 35W. One of the last sights that greeted me on the way was a Native American woman sitting on the sidewalk talking to a police officer. She was crying, and the officer had his hands on his hips. As I accelerated onto the freeway, the last thing I caught in the rearview mirror was a glimpse of her tangled mess of hair, bathed in the red and blue lights of the squad car.

Accelerating and merging, my mind drifted: "Should I delete my Facebook account? That blog I read sure make some good points. What the hell was with those two guys in class tonight? Why are they so rude? Am I hungry? I wish I was riding my motorcycle."

All of a sudden, I felt ashamed that I'd already forgotten what had so genuinely moved me mere minutes earlier. How was it that I could see something, feel it and internalize it, but find a way to reconcile it and move on to minutia again? What happened to the sincerely thankful prayers that I wasn't in this guy's shoes? Had they meant nothing?

When I got home, my daughter was in her crib, crying from the pain of the new teeth slowly making their way through her gums. I gave her some Tylenol, and took her in my arms. As we sat in the darkness, she fell asleep again as I rocked her back and forth in the white leather glider chair. She was lucky, I realized, to sleep in the same place every night. And so was I.

Why is it so hard to keep that in perspective?