One Chance

By Lloyd Graff

The issue that seems to be giving America heartburn in 2016 and driving the election rhetoric is the gulf between the well-off and the falling-off. Underlying that is the feeling that it is getting harder and harder to move from “barely getting by” to “feeling successful.”

I listened to a remarkable podcast this week by Malcolm Gladwell called “Carlos Doesn’t Remember.” It was so good I listened to it twice. Gladwell recounts the struggle of “Carlos” (not his real name), an exceptionally gifted student from a broken home who is trying to reach his potential. He was spotted in 4th grade in a rough Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles by Eric Eisner, a wealthy Entertainment Industry lawyer turned philanthropist, who helps disadvantaged but brilliant kids reach their best life outcome. Eisner says that he has to find kids by the 4th grade; otherwise they will be sucked into gang culture or fall so far behind their affluent counterparts that they will be too discouraged to do the work to catch up.

The Carlos story is complicated by numerous crises in Carlos’ personal life: a missing father, an emotionally fragile mother who abandons Carlos and his sister and ends up in prison in Texas, and a foster child system that separates Carlos and his younger sister. Despite all of this turmoil, Carlos, who is now a teenager, continues to excel academically, even at the elite private high school 45 minutes away that Eisner has helped him get into.

The thrust of Gladwell’s podcast is that middle class and wealthier children get several chances to screw up in life, but kids like Carlos, if they are extremely lucky and smart, get one chance. If they screw up just once they miss their opportunity to rise above their bleak circumstances.

Listen to the podcast on youtube here: https://youtu.be/2Uc-u79D31w

*****

I was reminded of Carlos while talking to Scott Wallace of southern Indiana’s Vincennes University, which has perhaps the most sophisticated training program in the country for aspiring CNC machinists.

Vincennes University “CNC Machinist Now” Grad

The Vincennes approach is a 60-credit hour Associates Degree with 5 instructors and 15 modern pieces of Hurco CNC lathes and machining centers.

In the two-year curriculum students are challenged with classwork and intensive instruction on the production equipment. Mr. Wallace indicated that most of the graduates go directly to the shop floor at employers in the Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois areas near Vincennes. Enrollment is full at 75 students for the first year. They have about 60 in the second year of the degree program.

They also have an advanced one-year program with 14 students in programming, which enables students to earn a second Associates Degree.

The Vincennes program costs $177 per degree hour, so a full-time paying student is on the hook for $10,000 tuition without assistance. Room and board adds to the tab.

I wonder if the smart, mechanically inclined young man or woman in Gary or Fort Wayne even thinks about their possibilities for a career that a Vincennes curriculum might provide. And even if somebody informs them about Vincennes, are their lives too complicated and filled with personal crises to take a chance on a two year commitment, $10,000 in tuition, and life away from what they are familiar with?

When Bernie Sanders and now Hillary Clinton float the idea of free college for all it sounds appealing, but Malcolm Gladwell’s piece dramatically portrayed how life gets in the way, even for the most gifted of students.

Vincennes is a nice option for kids who have some prior initiation to machining and math. Unfortunately, so many young people living in the inner cities have very little of both and are born into desperate circumstances which hold them down. If it is extremely difficult for an exceptionally gifted student like Carlos who has the help of a wealthy angel looking out for him, what chance do people have who don’t have such advantages?

Question: Does everyone have a chance to achieve prosperity in the United States?

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The Dune

By Lloyd Graff

The path was steep and winding, inaccessible by car. It led to the beach on the Pacific Ocean at Monterey Bay, near where my granddaughter went to summer camp. She wanted to show off the scenery to us.

I chose to stay at the car while the others in our group trudged down the rapidly descending path to the sea. I wanted to douse my memories of 8 years ago, when I was wondering if I’d make it up the sand dune at Lake Michigan where the family was vacationing right before the heart attack that almost ended my life.

For the last 8 years I’ve almost entirely avoided sand dunes and steep ascents from the water. The images they provoke in me are just too unsettling. Why look for anxiety when there’s enough in everyday existence to fill my cup to overflowing?

I thought I had buried the sand dune memory, turned it into a postcard photo after eight years, but I hadn’t. I don’t know if I can kill the scary images of the past. Maybe the best I can do is identify them and say to myself, “I know you, you annoy me, but you don’t spook me anymore.”

Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan

Eight years ago, as I struggled to climb the 150-foot sand dune at Union Pier, Michigan, the sweat poured from my forehead and armpits. It was as much from the fear and denial as the exertion. Was I going to make it to the street? Were they going to have to call an ambulance? And if I did make it up the dune, was I going to fake it like I had been all week on the trip, or let everybody know how scared I was?

I faked it.

Everybody else went out for lunch at the nearby burger joint, but I stayed in the car, trying to will away the pain in my left upper chest and dry the sweat on my brow.

I had forgotten that awful half hour waiting for the family to finish lunch, wallowing in fear in the Toyota, until just writing this. Maybe memories never really are buried.

Question: Have fear and denial almost killed you?

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Polish-ish Jew

By Noah Graff

Wood Figurines of Jews sold in Warsaw Old Town

Two weeks ago I spent several days in Poland, staying in Kraków and Warsaw.

Poland is a country full of beauty with a rich history. Unfortunately much of that history has been a bloody one due to its location between Germany and Russia.

I knew that while there it was imperative for me to learn about the history of the Jews in Poland—my roots. Many of my ancestors lived in Poland; fortunately a lot of them left before World War II.

While staying in Kraków I drove an hour away to visit Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps. I had been to a different concentration camp a few years ago, Dachau, nearby Munich, and while that was a powerful experience, visiting Auschwitz brought about emotions of another level of intensity. I walked into rooms with ovens to incinerate the dead and into gas chambers with photos on a wall of individual prisoners accompanied by information, such as their country of origin, if they were Jewish or Gypsy, and when they were killed—1942 for all those in that particular room. In one room I saw a pile of Tallites, the

Prisoner uniforms at Aushwitz with photos of murdered prisoners on the wall.

Jewish prayer shawls that had been collected from Jews upon their arrival at the camp. Another room contained the original striped prisoner uniforms with more photos of victims on the walls. I saw the barracks where prisoners slept two people per bed. I walked around the grounds and imagined prisoners assembling for role call. The original barbed wire double fences still surround the camp, along with the guard towers that prevented prisoners from escaping alive.

It feels different to see where the horrors took place in person—not looking at a photo or movie screen—but up close and in color. The horrors become real, rather than just a bad dream.

Before I left for Poland I was curious to find out how Polish people today see Jews. I have many Polish friends in Chicago, young First Generation Polish people, and a few of them have asked me if I am Polish. It feels a little awkward when I get the question. I say that my ancestors were from Poland, but they were Jewish, so I’m not sure if that makes me Polish. My parents always told me that the Jews were second-class citizens in Poland, segregated from the main-stream Christian Poles, which meant that they were not Polish. However, after my experiences in Poland, the places I visited and the Polish people I met, I feel a little more Polish than I did before. I guess I could go as far as to say that I feel “Polish-ish.”

In Warsaw I visited the Polin Museum, a museum devoted to telling the history of Jews in Poland. I learned that Jews first settled in the area of today’s Poland back in the 1200s. They were traders traversing Europe who decided it seemed like a good spot to put down roots. It started with about 200 Jews, who made up approximately 5% of the population. The Jewish communities were isolated in their own areas, and although they did not enjoy the same rights as non-Jewish people of the region, the nobility provided them a livelihood, employing them with jobs that were outlawed by Christianity at the time such as money lending—funny that 800 years later we are still known for the same occupation and often still resented for it.

As the centuries passed Poland gained a reputation in Europe as “the place where the Jews were treated too well,” so Jews kept settling there, eventually becoming a significant portion of the nation’s population. By the turn of the Twentieth Century many Jews had assimilated into Polish society and Jews were on the cusp of gaining equal rights and Polish citizenship. Some Jews fought in World War I to assert themselves as true Poles. During the same period many Jewish traditionalists feared that Jews were assimilating too much in Polish society. They feared that having the same rights as gentiles would cause Jewish culture and traditions to fade away. I think their fears were valid to some extent judging by the assimilation of American Jews in today’s predominantly tolerant American society. Also, history has shown repeatedly that when Jews become too comfortable in their surroundings it is a precursor to some sort of catastrophe.

Right when the Jews were starting to be officially accepted by Polish society World War II began. In a few years Warsaw went from a city with a 30% Jewish population to one with just a handful of Jews. Today one can walk through the touristy Old Town of Warsaw and see street vendors selling figurines of religious Jews so people can know what this extinct group of people looked like.

Some of the perspectives on Jews from people I met in Poland blew my mind. One woman in Warsaw told me that later in life she discovered she had a Jewish grandparent. She claimed that prior to World War II 70% of Warsaw was Jewish! A taxi driver told me that he was married to an ethnically Jewish woman—her mom was Jewish because her Grandmother was Jewish. He claimed that prior to World War II Warsaw was likely 50% Jewish. I interpret these shocking statistics to signify that Jews had been in Poland so long that they had spread their gene pool throughout the country. This probably was one reason Hitler killed so many Poles.

Just days after I returned home the world famous Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning author, Elie Wiesel, passed away. He had devoted his life to ensuring that the world never forget what happened in the Holocaust. I hope I will never understand what it was like to be a prisoner in Auschwitz. Yet I feel grateful that on this trip I was able to see where the tragedy happened and better understand where I come from.

Question: Does today’s genocide in the Middle East remind you of the Holocaust?

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Don’t Call Me a Sissy

By Lloyd Graff

Rick Barry shooting his famous underhand free throw

I watched the NBA Finals with rapt attention as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

One thing that struck me was despite the incredible athleticism of the players, several key guys on the floor were inept free throw shooters. Tristan Thompson, Andrew Bogut, and Festus Ezeli were butchers at the line.

It brought to mind Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, who was also a pathetic foul shooter.

As luck would have it, I was listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, historian, writer, social commentator and big time hoops fan. He was telling the story of Rick Barry, another Hall of Fame basketball player, and Wilt. Barry usually led the NBA in free throw shooting, and Wilt was perennially at the bottom in percentage. Barry once approached Wilt and told him he could help him, but Chamberlain declined because Barry shot his free throws underhanded. Wilt said, “If I shoot underhanded they’ll call me a sissy,” and Barry said “not if you make them.”

Gladwell asked Barry, whose three sons all played in the NBA, how he came to shoot underhanded. He said his father was his high school basketball coach in New Jersey. He was a star player, but he only shot his free throws at 70%, which was OK but not as good as his Dad thought he could shoot. One day Rick’s father told him he wanted him to shoot underhand in the next game. Barry objected, saying they’d call him a sissy, but he obliged his father and coach. A fan in the crowd yelled, “Barry you’re a sissy,” but he made all the free throws he took that night, and his father said, “You’re not a sissy if you make them.”

In sports and in life most of us bow to social pressure. We are afraid to change course. The worst thing is to be laughed at by our peers because we dared to be different.

As we get ready for the Rio Olympics all of the world class high jumpers will be using a high jump form known as the Fosbury Flop. Prior to 1965 and the emergence of Dick Fosbury every competitive high jumper cleared the bar with a western roll or even a scissors kick, but with the advent of soft pits to land on Fosbury developed a revolutionary technique in which he would sprint diagonally towards the bar, then curve and leap backwards over it. He won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968. They probably called him a sissy or worse when he first tried the flop.

Going back to the NBA Finals, Draymond Green of the Warriors has redefined his position on the court. He calls himself a “Point Forward” because he often rebounds the ball off the defensive backboard and leads a fast break down the court. It takes tremendous athleticism to combine those skills, but more and more players like Green and Lebron James are popularizing this position. When Ben Simmons, the 2016 #1 pick in the NBA draft, was asked what his position was, he responded, “I’m a Point Forward.”

I am a little surprised that we have not seen radical shifts in football and baseball—probably the power of social pressure. The New England Patriots show some originality by shunning first round draft picks to focus on second through fourth round picks where most of the best players are found. In baseball, the split finger pitch changed the game, but today pitchers see it as an arm killer so it has been shelved by most. The Cubs are innovating under Manager Joe Madden by playing players in multiple positions. On Tuesday he used three pitchers in the outfield. While there usually is one “utility infielder” on a team, Madden is trying to assemble a team of athletes who can play multiple positions. He wants a team of “Swiss Army Knife” versatile players.

On the machine tool front, the DeCaussin family in Los Angeles were sure they could build a vertical machining center for half the price of the dominant Japanese machines. Working with little money out of an 800-square-foot garage in North Hollywood, California, they built their first prototype with a tool changer in 1974 and drove it to IMTS in the back of their pickup truck. It was a big success and financed their venture into vertical machining centers in 1979.

Unfortunately, creativity is shunned in sports, like it usually is in business. We trudge along day after day, rarely gambling on a new strategy or technique.

We don’t want to risk being a flop or being called a sissy.

Question: Would you punch someone who called you a sissy?

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I Beg to Differ

By Lloyd Graff

 

The scuttlebutt in the machinery business is that the Branford Group and partners made a bundle on the Bronson Products auction a week ago. It had been a hotly contested bid by several auction groups to buy the machinery and tooling and accessories. Branford and partners allegedly had about $9 million in the deal. Knowledgeable observers think they did extremely well on the deal with the aggressive bidding and buyers premium. How did the competition miss the upside on a deal like that?

My sources tell me that a Korean buyer had been interested in buying the package but was not interested in everything, so he passed on the deal. Later he leased the building, took on several contracts, and became a super aggressive bidder for key pieces in the auction. With big machines like Kuraki boring mills already in place he virtually had to buy many of the pivotal pieces in the auctions. It was a deal made in heaven for Branford and partners.

While prices at Bronson Products went high, generally auction prices and machinery prices have softened. With IMTS coming up, buyers with money may be waiting for advantageous pricing just before or at the show. Machine tool builders and their distributors are cutting prices with the strong dollar and weak market. The oil and gas price softening has proven to be a disaster for the machine tool market, new and used. We are seeing it in weak prices all over.

While oil and gas and mining does not comprise a large percentage of the total machinery market, it has been enough to tip machine tool prices into a steep downturn. It appears that today’s rebound to $50 oil is not robust enough to change the pessimism in the oil patch. Tesla and Nissan may still be struggling to move the needle with their electric cars, but the market makers on oil prices are still holding the market at near $50.

It is fascinating to watch the tug of war in the financial markets. The Templeton Funds, a major player out of California, are buying oil stocks like crazy. They believe that $50 oil cannot hold and the market could retrace it’s steps back to $100. Maybe they are right, but I doubt it. With Iran back in the market, the Russians desperate for cash, and the American frackers hot to get back on track, I think we will be in the $40-$55 range for years, and then trend lower.

But $50 oil is the consensus now and the consensus is often wrong, as it has been on interest rates this year, when all the “smart people” were sure we were headed much higher with Fed tightening. Today the 10-year U.S. Treasury is around 1.50%.

The consensus view was also quite wrong on the Bronson Products auction.

**********

The summer solstice combining with a full moon is a rare occurrence in the northern hemisphere. So is a Brexit vote to break up the European Union and the Russian track team being banished from the Olympics. And Donald Trump is running against Hillary Clinton? Strange time.

I am struggling to be optimistic. It is an up-hill battle.

Politically, I see an epic debacle for the Republican Party. It is hard to see Trump winning more than a few states — Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia, probably. There just are not enough angry white guys to tip most states.

The only way I can envision the Republicans winning the White House in 2016 is if Trump dies, becomes incapacitated, or quits the race. They are all possible but remote happenings. I envision a last ditch effort to persuade the Donald to quit if his numbers indicate a 35-40% Trump vote, which would be enormously humiliating for him especially if he brought down the Republican majorities in the House and Senate and enabled Hillary Clinton to have several Supreme Court picks who could be confirmed. The potential upheaval in the High Court could put enormous social media pressure on Trump to step aside for his vice presidential pick to save the party and even win the race.

This could all happen very quickly but probably not before the Convention. Trump wants his coronation. After all, he did win the nomination. May he not pick Newt Gingrich for his Vice President.

Question: Would you like to vacation in England?

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Dad’s Day

By Lloyd Graff

Lloyd Graff’s father, Leonard Graff

Father’s Day gives us a reason to celebrate our Dads, either in life or in memory.

I think of my father, Leonard, every day during a 15 minute prayer ritual I do. He used to do the same routine and I adopted it when I was 13. It’s one of many things I observed and copied. At one point I take note of people who were important to me and I briefly imagine them. My memory of my father always comes up first.

He was a dominating figure to me as I was maturing. He would tell stories about growing up that mesmerized me because he recounted both the tough times and the happy ones. His mother was a psychological mess, often ending up in mental institutions where she received shock treatments, the therapy of the day before antipsychotic drugs. His father told him that they day he married Ethel Levinson was the worst one of his life. Divorce was out of the question back then, so they stayed together and had five kids. One died as a young child so my father was the youngest. He sought refuge at the Pinkert house nearby, where he had the benefit of 11 first cousins to hang out with. It was a happy second family for him.

Leonard’s Dad was his role model. He loved him deeply and cherished the rides in his truck while calling on his scrap metal clients. My father graduated from the University of Chicago in 1938. There were not many jobs available then. Proctor and Gamble was hiring and he applied but didn’t get a sales position, so he joined his father Louis in the scrap iron business.

My father had one stipulation in his employment. He would not drive the truck. For a couple years together the business grew as my father found the profitable niche of scrapping failing ice cream factories that had valuable copper in their freezers. Sadly, Louis died at 51 in 1941 of a heart attack. My father was devastated but went into business with his uncle Abe and took on the management of his mother’s emotional health.

In those days men and women married young. My father was long, lean and handsome at 6’6” tall. A chance introduction to 19-year-old Thais Kassel who lived in a high rise elevator building on the north side of Chicago led to a whirlwind romance and marriage. While Thais’ father may have wanted a son-in-law with a better pedigree than son of a scrap dealer, Leonard was not a man to be denied the woman he had fallen in love with.

My mother dropped out of college to become a homemaker and have children. Children didn’t come for 3.5 years, which had people cackling, but I was born in December of 1944 and my sister Susan 13 months later. The back to back pregnancies left my mother with post-partum depression and her mother moved in to take care of the kids while my Mom convalesced and my father was busy building his business.

My parents told me I did not talk until I was three years old, which could have been a reaction to the absence of my mother.

As I grew up my Dad was a major presence in my life. He dominated the dinner meal with stories about his business which had become buying and selling used machinery in the mid 1950s. He made the business competition sound like sports and I ate up every story.

He taught me to play tennis (his preferred sport) and put up a basketball hoop in our backyard. He hit me fly balls to catch in the park across the street and made the house a safe haven for his wife and three children. There was no discernable conflict in the house because my father did not want any and would not allow it. He was lord of his castle. Nobody thought to challenge him on anything. The Graff house was a peaceful enclave for him, the opposite of what he grew up in. He was determined that his family would be free of turmoil, yet he visited his mother almost every day and brought her to our house every Friday night and Sunday. She knew how to press his buttons and manipulate him emotionally like no other person. On trips I would observe him talking to her in a phone booth and then watch him leave the booth in emotional pain. He could control most things, but not his relationship with her.

I joined my father in the machinery business in 1970 and my brother Jim joined soon after. I think it gave him pleasure, but he would have been ok with it continuing like it had, too. He never put any pressure on me to join him.

I watched as his health eroded with heart problems, diabetes and almost constant migraines. He took off more and more time, but he always was tuned into the business. His old partner Aaron Pinkert retired but my Dad persevered though Jim and I continued to grow our roles.

My mother died several years before my Dad died. They were married more than 50 years and he felt much loneliness and some regret that he was not as available emotionally to her as she needed.

But on Father’s Day (and a little before) I remember him as a Dad who loved his family, was committed to his business, and struggled mightily to move past the turmoil of his childhood. I loved him deeply.

Question: What’s a story about your father you have never told anyone?

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Saving Ferris

By Noah Graff

Some of you may remember a blog I wrote a year and a half ago promoting “Saving Ferris,” my latest YouTube documentary about the Chicago locations of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

To make my documentary I visited almost all of the film’s locations in Chicago and the northern suburbs of Chicago where it was originally shot. In the film I talk about where and what the locations actually are and how they have changed in the last few decades. I also try to recapture the experience of the movie. I go to a Cubs game, drive a Ferrari replica down Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, and even get on a float at the Von Steuben Day Parade, the same parade in the film where Ferris sang “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout.”

This week celebrates the 30th anniversary of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the wonderful John Hughes film about three high schoolers who ditch a day of school to go spend the perfect day in Chicago. This summer the film is being shown in parks and on rooftops all over Chicago. There was even a Ferris Bueller festival a few weeks ago in Lake Forest, Illinois. All of a sudden everyone in Chicago is acting like they are as big a Ferris Bueller fan as me!

Why is everyone so gaga about a 30-year-old movie? Why did I love this movie so much that I spent years making a documentary about it? Why was it the go-to movie for my parents to put on when one of their kids was sick?

IMG_0183

Noah Graff on float at Von Steuben Day Parade

I believe there are several reasons for this love of Ferris. First, the film is a comedic masterpiece. A brilliant cast starring Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Grey, Mia Sara and Alan Ruck, along with a classic drugged-out Charlie Sheen, can literally make me laugh out loud—not too many films are capable of that. I can still envision my childhood friend John and I rewinding my parents’ VCR to watch the same scenes over and over again. One of our favorites was the scene where Ferris’s sister Genie karate kicks Mr. Rooney in the face three times. We must have watched that scene 20 times in one sitting when we we were 9. I must also say that as an 8- or 9-year old seeing the movie for the first time its lovely medley of swear words made the jokes extra amazing. Childhood movie watching experiences have produced special bonds for me to classics like Ferris Bueller. When I watch comedies such as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Blues Brothers,” or “Stripes” it almost feels like I’m visiting an old friend.

Many Ferris fans group the film with some of the other John Hughes 1980s classics that also take place in Chicago’s north suburbs—the so-called “Brat Pack” movies such as “16 Candles,” “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club.” Those films deal with the difficulties faced by middle-class Generation X teens. Many critics say that the protagonist of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is not Ferris but instead Ferris’s best friend, Cameron Frye, a depressed teen with abusive parents who is jealous of Ferris’s easier life and enamored of Sloan, Ferris’s sexy girlfriend. While this coming-of-age theme ties “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” together in the end, I don’t believe it is the reason that so many people love watching the film.

We love watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” because the film gives us the chance to relive Ferris’s fantasy day. We get to imagine what life would be like if we could be a high school kid again but have everything go exactly how we wanted it to go for one day. We get to feel the fun and adrenaline rush of ditching school and stealing a Ferrari from your friend’s mean parents. Then we get the experience of going around an amazing city with our best friend and girlfriend, visiting three times the amount of fun places that a person could possibly go to in a single day! That wonderful day never gets old.

Question: What movies have you watched over and over again?

Like “Saving Ferris” on Facebook

Watch the entire “Saving Ferris” documentary on Noah Graff’s YouTube Channel:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLriQJlYKRvhWwK1gDmclWPj6pQsl4jA_p

“Saving Ferris” Trailer

Noah gets on a float at the Von Steuben Day Parade

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Chicago Zoo

By Lloyd Graff

Victor Felix, 16-year-old shot dead in Chicago June 1, 2016. DNAinfo.com

Within the first week of June 2016, 13 Chicagoans have been shot and killed, primarily in the war zone called the South Side of Chicago.

In Cincinnati a 17-year-old well-behaved gorilla was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a 4-year-old child wiggled into his living space. Anxious zookeepers followed protocol and shot the gorilla to save the child.

A week earlier at a zoo in Chile a seemingly deranged man snuck into the big cat area, stripped naked and offered his flesh to the lions. The zookeepers obeyed their preset ground rules and shot two lions dead to save the suicidal human.

One could argue that 4-year-old kids are more at risk on a June Saturday night in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago than in the lair of a generally quiescent gorilla in daylight.

June 1, 16-year-old Victor Felix was eaten by the awful violence in Chicago’s war zone. At 8:44 a.m. he was walking in the lion’s den of violence, the 4100 block of West 56th Street., just blocks away from his high school, when he was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Such incidents happen every day in Chicago’s Aleppo. Felix had no zookeeper to shoot his potential killer. These days, many of Chicago’s armed “zookeepers” are afraid to guard the city’s war zone too closely for a myriad of reasons. Can we fully blame them?

We want to blame the mom at the Cincinnati zoo, but an inquisitive 4-year-old at a zoo can be a dangerous sneak. The nutty guy in Chile was saved from the fate he seemingly was asking for. I’m happy for him, I think, and a little sad for the lions who were prepared to do what lions do. Who is to blame for Felix’s murder?

What kind of town is Chicago where hundreds of kids get eaten up each year by wandering into the neighborhood war zone?

Question: Are parents of murdered children to blame for not taking them out of war zone neighborhoods?

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Wedding Hoops

By Lloyd Graff

Levine North-South Basketball game over 25 years ago. Lloyd on the left.

The biggest basketball games of the year are starting. I’m pumped for Steph Curry vs. LeBron James, but the game I’m looking forward to even more will be at a family wedding in Virginia this Saturday.

For the last 40 years, at almost every wedding or Bar Mitvah weekend on my wife Risa’s side of the family, the cornerstone of the event is the family “North vs. South” basketball game between members of the Levine clan. The natural rivalry is between my wife’s family from Charlotte and the other Levines from the New York area.

The games started when Risa’s uncle Howard, who played college ball at Ciena College in New York state, wanted to match up his three sons against Risa’s three brothers and me. Risa’s other uncle in New York also had two sons who could play. Throw in other assorted invitees to the event and you had a game.

Through the years, marriage and children brought more players into the basketball event. Kids games and women’s games also popped up. For my sons, playing in the men’s game was a true initiation into the family. To be accepted as a player became more important than the Bar Mitzvah or wedding. My sons got to play little cameos when they celebrated their Bar Mitzvahs at 13, but true manhood was bestowed when they were really accepted as basketball contributors, maybe when they were 16 or 17.

You may be able to memorize scripture in Hebrew after a few months of preparation, but you can’t fake a jumpshot or a rebound. You do it or you don’t. Over time the pick and roll developed a significance surpassing all the rituals or parties.

When my son-in-law Scott joined the family my daughter Sarah had prepared him for months concerning the significance of the family basketball game. He could be a saint, the smartest guy in the room, the love of Sarah’s life, but if he couldn’t play some hoops he couldn’t be fully accepted into the clan, at least by the hard-core players. Scott understood, and played with gusto

For me, the retina detachments I suffered starting in 2003 knocked me out of the games. I could shoot around before the start of play, but one-eyed jump shots don’t cut it in competition. I became a fan, cheering for the South team from the sidelines. It was one of those sad passages that tells you emphatically that your days as a competitive athlete are finished. It changed the way I looked at family events. They were no longer participation events. I was stuck forever in the older generation.

I have gradually evolved into a fan. I schmooze with the other older guys and women on the sidelines and make astute comments about the proper strategy. It’s basketball. I love it. I’m passionate about it. I still dream about my playing in high school and images of layups with the imagined sound of the caroms helping me to go to sleep at night.

I’ll watch the Cavs-Warriors games avidly, because basketball is nirvana for me. The corner jumper swished from 20 feet is the sweetest sound in the world.

This weekend I’ll watch the 2016 incarnation of the family-ball confrontation. It’ll be fun, the bonding will be a joy. I know I’m now a member of the Levine Basketball Hall of Fame. In my creative memory I can shoot it like Steph Curry and bang like LeBron. Just ask the other 60-year-old guys who will be cheering the third generation players on.

Question: Do you look forward to or dread family reunions?

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I Love You Man

By Noah Graff

From the film “I Love You Man”

Monday I went to the Cubs game with my boy Roberto.

I’ve known Roberto for about nine years. I met him when I started salsa dancing. My first memory of him is when he was hitting on a girl who I ended up dating for a short time. He’s 50 years old, from Columbia (he grew up in Chicago), and I think that neither of us are exactly sure what the other one does for a living, but we have things in common and we connect. I consider him one of my best friends in Chicago, probably my best guy friend in Chicago at this point in my life. We go to movies together, we text each other to decide where to go out dancing, we talk about baseball, women and other BS. People sometimes snicker about us going on “man dates,” which is ridiculous. Why should it be strange for two men to be friends? Perhaps they are just jealous.

I have other people I consider friends—people at work, my crew from the salsa dancing scene and a few folks I know from various other places. But in Chicago I’d say that I have three “good friends,” Roberto and two other women, with whom I’ll talk on the phone and do stuff with one on one.

I had some good friends growing up, as well as in college, but many of them live in faraway places like New York and Indonesia. Many of my old friends have wives and kids and have become so absorbed in that life that they have no time for friends, or at least they don’t have time for me.

I don’t know if it has to do with the social climate of 2016 or if it is just the way it has always been, but for a lot of people, especially men, it seems like finding a good friend is quite difficult. Getting involved in a social hobby could help someone meet a friend, but if a person doesn’t join a group, where can he meet new people? Bars? NPR did a story about a guy who moved to Austin, Texas, who actually memorized baseball statistics and studied up on beer brewing just so he could make small talk at bars to hopefully meet a friend.

We live in a world in which many of us have hundreds or thousands of “friends” online with whom we share photos of life events, giving strangers a window into intimate moments of our lives. But with how many of these “friends” do we actually talk to about intimate things, go fishing, or go out for a beer?

I burn (perhaps waste) a lot of my time on online dating sites like Tinder, JSwipe (the Jewish Tinder) and OkCupid. What’s funny is that a lot of the women on those sites claim to be “looking for friends.” I’m not sure if all of those women mean the same thing when they write that on their profiles, but when I ask them about it many say to me that it’s hard to meet new good friends so why not try on Tinder. It’s sad but true, I guess. But I still have to roll my eyes when they say this because these same “friend seeking” women have online profiles that feature photos of themselves in bikinis making seductive faces. Also, these women ought to know that 99% of guys on online dating sites are not there to make friends—they are there to either “get some” or find a girlfriend (or boyfriend). I haven’t read an official statistic of this, but I’m quite confident with that statement.

But I digress. I feel bad for people who don’t have any friends. Even if a person has a romantic soulmate to provide lifelong companionship, sometimes a person needs someone with whom he or she is not “involved with” to share interests, whether it be a love of slasher films, crocheting or curling. Friends can also be great to listen to our personal fears and relationship nonsense, although it may not even be necessary to verbalize those intimate feelings—I know that’s not everybody’s thing. Just the feel of someone by your side while you’re bowling, golfing or merely chilling out on your front steps doing nothing I believe is a natural human need.

Question: Where did you make your friends?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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