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Football, Trump, and the (sports) soul of America…

September 27, 2017

Question: I was talking to a kid I ran into today on the way to my café on Howard Street. He was with his mom. He was on crutches – a cast around his foot – to the knee.

“Oh man,” I say, smiling at his mom. “You didn’t make it through the first week of school!”

“Football,” his mom said, looking at her son. “Weak ankles. What can you do?”

I looked at the young man. He seemed to be in Grade 8. Maybe 9 at the most. He was as tall as me, and was what you’d call  “bulky”. I pegged him as an inside man, probably a future linebacker.

He didn’t look at me. He just stared at the ground.

“Sorry man,” I said to him. “I’d say there’s next year, but that’s a shitty thing to say, pardon my English.”

I nod my goodbyes to his mother. Have a nice day.

“Find a gym,” I think to say to the young man. “There’s a Y just down on Touhy. Talk to the staff. Tell them what position you play. By next year you could be twice as strong and twice as fast.”

I paused for a second to think about what I wanted to say next. “And don’t tell your mother, (I said with a grin to her), but the girls like a boy who’s a little fit.”

“Alright, alright,” his mom says with a smile back. “Enough of that talk. He don’t need to be thinking about no girls.”

“Find a gym,” I say again as I walk away.


They take their football very seriously in this predominately African American neighborhood which is located a couple of blocks north of where I live.

The field at the community center is all football. It has been since early August. From what I have seen it is entirely African-American boys and high school young men who train and practice there.

Football, as we all now know, is about as good for you as smoking. There is a new study every year further confirming what we know – that helmet-to-helmet contact, at full speed, often happening when you aren’t expecting it, scrambles the brains. Permanently.

The average life expectancy for an NFL player is about 60.

We can deny what it does to the brain, just as we denied it when the cigarette studies started emerging in the mid-sixties. But it’s still a fact. Full contact football will kill you, on average, about 20 years before everyone else. And before you die, your brains will most likely have turned to porridge.

Football is, by far, the most popular sport among men (and a lot of women) in America. Here in Chicago, men talk and think football the way men talked soccer when we were in Buenos Aires. By this I mean obsessively. After a Bears’ game, the Chicago Tribune dedicates the first six pages of its Sports Section to an analysis of the game (and this is with the Cubs leading their division in baseball.) Entire intersections get shut down for tailgate block parties before the Bears hit the field. There is a bar in Chicago – somewhere – dedicated to your favorite football team. Not just your favorite NFL team, but your favorite college football team as well. Every fall, our community newspaper gives us a list of where these bars are.

When we informed a woman who we were buying a kitchen shelf from that we were from Toronto, she immediately assumed that we were Bills’ fans, and she gave us the name of the bar in town that carries all the Bills’ games (Delilah’s, down in Lincoln Park). Apparently it’s a great place to meet up with ex-pat Buffalo and Toronto people who have moved to Chicago.


America has organized it’s African-American communities to be at the very bottom of the Totem. The first time you visit some of these predominately African-American communities that have been deprived of even the most basic of government services you will notice that you can’t stop blinking in bewilderment and in sorrow. Or, that you can’t blink at all.

It used to be like that for the Black community up here at Howard, but then gentrification started creeping into the neighborhood. You can still see the old neighborhood, and there are plenty of people who will still say that you should watch your back and where you go up here late at night, but it’s not nearly the hard street it used to be.

Football serves multiple purposes in these low-income communities. At the top, it is about scholarships and a ticket out. For the majority of parents football is an excellent role-playing game, much akin to chess, and it plays to certain boys’ boisterous physical natures, teaches team skills, responsibility, pride, and all that other potentially good stuff, and generally keeps a group of boys busy and what my mother used to say “out of trouble”.


African American males make up roughly 6% of American society. They comprise 35% of the prison system, and 70% of the NFL.

The average NFL salary is almost $2 million per year.

According to city census, the average income in South Austin, or in tract 2809 of the Near West Side, and in Armour Square (the three poorest communities in Chicago) are $18,000, $11,000, and $10,000 respectively. (For some perspective, the community around Howard Street earns on average between $25-35,000.)

Am I going to tell this boy’s mom that he shouldn’t play football because it might scramble his brain? Me, with my three degrees, currently living in Roger’s Park on my wife’s Northwestern PH.D. scholarship money?


Haiti was the wealthiest island-nation in the Caribbean when the slaves successfully revolted against their Masters in 1804 (after a bitter thirteen year war for their freedom). As punishment for their slave revolt, Europe and America embargoed the nation for more than a century. Consequently, Haiti has become the poorest nation in the Americas. It currently stands as the 21st poorest nation in the world.

Colin Kaepernick was the superstar African-American quarterback at the University of Nevada. He was twice named Western Athlete Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He holds a number of NCAA Division I offensive records. He was drafted in the second round by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. He soon led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl appearance in twenty years.

Last year Kaepernick decided to go down on one knee during the national anthem to protest police violence and the killing of unarmed young Black men. He was honoring a tradition of non-violent protest used by Martin Luther King Jr. He has not played in the NFL since. Technically, he is a free agent that no other team wants. (To give you some perspective: there are currently 49 active NFL players who have been accused of, or charged with, rape.)

NFL players never used to come out to stand for the national anthem at the beginning of football games. The tradition had always been to stay in the locker room until after the anthem, and then come bursting out onto the field to a great home town cheer. In 2009, the Pentagon offered the NFL $12 million if the NFL would get the players to stand at, or near attention on the sidelines during the anthem. The Pentagon thought it would be good for recruitment purposes (as those pesky wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were kicking the shit out of their recruitment efforts).

The NFL, which is the richest professional sports organization in America, and its Commissioner Roger Goodell, has never seen a dollar they didn’t want to suck, and so they took the money and put the players on the sideline hand on hearts.

Like I said, Kaepernick has not worked in the NFL since he took a knee and collectively gave the finger to the cops, the military, and the NFL.

Few people outside of sports (or race politics) paid any attention to any of this until this last weekend when President Donald Trump decided to pile on after the play was over and declared that any player who kneels in protest during the anthem is a “son of a bitch” and should be fired.

The NFL, having already made an example of Kaepernick, was now forced into a pseudo-counter position of playing the outraged protector of a player’s right to non-violent protest. Even 49ers CEO Jed York officially noted that Trump’s comments were “callous and offensive” and that the 49ers would support its players in “their pursuit of positive change”.

Everyone, all the while, choking on their own hypocrisy.


The NCAA, the organization in charge of overseeing college football in America made over a billion dollars in revenue last year from college football. According to Forbes Magazine, $95 billion was gambled on college and NFL games in America in 2016. ESPN spent more than $7 billion just to obtain the rights to cover college playoff games.

The 17 and 18-year-old players get an NCAA scholarship to play football, and little else.  And if you don’t think the NCAA takes the “and little else” seriously, 30 players from Southern Charleston University were suspended for a game for using some of their scholarship book money to pay for pens and paper and other merchandise they bought at their university bookstore. They were in violation of their scholarship rules and needed to be made example of.

If college players get permanently injured, at many universities their scholarships will be retracted. Most of these players are released and simply end up back in their ‘hoods.

The news broke today about a FBI investigation in a massive bribery corruption scandal in the NCAA. Although, at this point, to be shocked at a corruption scandal in the NCAA is to be shocked that the Vice-President of FIFA was discovered to have had a penthouse in New York just for his dog, or aghast that governments routinely bribe Olympic officials in order to be awarded the opportunity to host the Olympics in their country.


I sit in the café and watch as little eight and nine-year-old boys, in ridiculous oversized helmets go through their after school football drills in the park across the street. They go through their drills confusedly and with a total lack of confidence. A few mothers chat on the sidelines.

I watch and smile as the boys huddle together in a scrimmage and put their arms on each others’ shoulder, in just the same way the pros used to do. Comrades all! A line from Camus comes to mind: “a great sob of poetry wells up inside me, and I forget the world’s truth”. Imitation is the best form of flattery.

I doubt that any of these kids know about the NCAA scandal, or about whose neighborhoods have money and whose do not, or maybe even about Kaepernick’s bended knee and what that bent Black knee in American history represents.

They will know soon enough.

So my question is this: did the Grade 8 kid’s broken ankle, and if in fact he has weak ankles, save him from a career in football and a possible early death, or punish him, by withholding that potential golden ticket that we dangle in front of all our poor young Black gladiators?





When two tribes go to war…

September 19, 2017

So, if you pay attention you will see that it is currently very much in vogue in the mainstream media to highlight that the current political unrest in the world – and the rise of right-wing quasi-fascist nationalist sentiment – is a reaction to Enlightenment principles – that we are at the end of the 300 year historical process known as the Enlightenment era.

Some even argue that the Enlightenment itself is a colonial relic that needs to be discarded into the dustbins of history – as if it were only white Europeans who discovered and built upon the ideas of equality, human rights, environmentalism. (A concept which you may note is itself racist and colonial.)

Far better it would be to cast out the principles of enlightenment than discuss the elephant in the room – global capitalism and its inherent structural contradictions, which, when unregulated, leads to the crisis of capital accumulation (where too few people sit on (horde) too much of the money), which subsequently leads to widespread poverty amongst everyone else, that can only deepen over time as this fundamental contradiction continues to play itself out – like a cancer killing its host.

If say McDonald’s can increase its profits by eliminating all of its workers through a full automation of the burger-to-mouth process (which it is working on as we speak) – at a very basic economic level this is good business. That this completely disregards the notion that fewer people will actually be able to purchase said burgers due to increased unemployment seems to be beyond their understanding of quarterly profit reports.

When most jobs are automated in what some people are calling the largest impending disruption of employment since the Industrial Revolution – who will buy the goods? Six million jobs are expected to be lost in the world over the next 10 years due to increased automation. Some argue that over the next 25 years, at least 100 million jobs worldwide will be lost with the arrival of self-driving cars and trucks.

It’s not surprising that much of corporate media would avoid any real de-construction discussion of capitalism as they are part of the corporate structure themselves – especially with media outlets increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (also part of a deregulation that began under Reagan in the US and Mulroney in Canada).

When Canada’s national newspaper is owned by one of the richest families in Canada (the Thompsons) you are not going to see any discussion about the failings of capitalism.

Even the CBC, in highlighting today that the use of food-banks in Canada is up 9% this year, despite Canada’s so-called booming economy, there was no discussion about stagnant wages, or receding wages (the minimum wage is worth only about 1/2 what it was in the 1970’s – less than a 1/4 of its value in some American states) – nor did they connect the strike at a GM plant in Ontario where production has been gradually siphoned off to cheaper wage workers in Mexico.

They did mention the high cost of housing but with no analysis whatsoever as to where the high cost of housing comes from – who profits from the high cost of housing – or how governments work with developers to maintain the high cost of housing.

No, the mainstream news does not connect the dots for us. Any more than they connect the dots when it comes to global warming. (Sidebar note: In a review of media coverage here in America of media coverage of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma – two hurricanes described by scientists as once every 500 years type storms – none of the big American media players ever mentioned – even once – climate change in their coverage.)

There’s just too much at stake for those who continue to make enormous wealth, and gain global power, from the current system, for there to be any real examination of what the current economic model is doing to the 98% of the world who are being economically marginalized, or the price the planet has to pay for their exploitation.

Should we be surprised that nationalist unrest here in America is located primarily in those parts of the country most adversely affected by the past 30 years if neo-liberal capitalist policy? It is the same in financially marginalized regions in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, India, China, and Russia, where the majority of nationalist protests are occurring.

History has shown repeatedly that when the workers get squeezed to the financial brink, they start reacting by blaming “others” – minorities, immigrants, women – failing to see the larger forces at play.

Nationalism, fascism, authoritarianism are never far behind…we ignore the structural contradictions at play in the current global economic model at our own peril…

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Three weeks in…

September 18, 2017

Surprisingly, the hardest thing to come to terms with in Chicago (so far), is just how damn friendly and talkative Chicagoans are.

It’s really irritating sometimes!

Especially if we are in a hurry, we just want to find something, make a purchase, get on with the errands of our day.

We’re Canadians after all – there are so many things we have to do. No time to say hello, goodbye, we’re late, we’re late, we’re late!

Needed a new night light for the bike – so my partner can cycle to her night class in peace. At our local bike shop, I must first maneuver through a 25 minute discussion on the state of cycling in Chicago, the history of bike lanes in Illinois, the best route to get to Northwestern, and how much the neighborhood has changed (gentrified) since the guy opened his bike store in 1981.

We are walking to a local cafe. Across the street an African man (wearing a dashiki) is gardening in his front yard, clearing weeds with a machete. He smiles at us. I give him a thumbs up, he smiles broadly and says “It’s a beautiful day, is it not?” A neighbor lady, watching him work, greets us with a “Good morning, how ya’all doin this mornin?”

At the cafe the barista says she doesn’t recognize us, we tell her we have just moved here from Toronto, she takes the next 15 minutes to tell us about the neighborhood, who has the best beer, pizza, breakfast menu, where to watch the Cubs, where the best new theatre is happening, what she thinks of the mayor (at least he’s not Trump), and with the mention of Trump the cook comes out from the back and others pipe in with their hisses and boos and a whole new conversation begins (we still don’t have our coffee).

But we’re Canadian! You’re making us terribly self-conscious with all this stranger talk, just give us our coffee, leave us to our polite solitude and political meekness. Can’t we just apologize for being new to the area and get on with our day?

“I think she was hitting on you,” my partner says to me after we finally sit down.

“Me? I thought she was hitting on you,” I say back to her.

“She must have been hitting on one of us”, she says. “Why else would she talk so much?”

Because we love to buy most of our major household needs from Craigslist (there is no Kijiji down here), we’ve learned to schedule in an extra 1/2 hr when we go to someone’s house to look at lamps, or bookshelves, or a vintage reading chair someone no longer wants.

This wonderful old plant lady out in the old 50’s style burbs just west of us, first has to take us on a grand tour of her gardens, tell us about her daughter (who also went to Northwestern), how her husband and her came to the U.S. from China in the late ’60’s – finally we point out to her that we have a car rental – by the hour – “okay, okay, okay” she says, and then invites us in to try a certain fruit she has just harvested from one of her trees. My wife pulls out her cell phone and uses the car rental app to extend our rental another hour. What else can we do?

And yet…

And yet, despite this friendliness, this eagerness to engage and chat, there is a deep American paranoia of the “other” and a great lurking rage just beneath the surface of American culture.

The triple-locked doors, the wrought-iron fences, the “beware of dog” signs we see in so many porch windows. The gun violence. We watched as two women got into a full-on fist fight in our local supermarket.

The binary extreme so many people here seem to live with.

But there is also the cultural space allowed for such extremes not usually found in Canadian culture.

My gut reaction is that universal healthcare, paid maternity leave, a more widely applied social welfare support system, more physical space, less people, all help smooth out the harshest of edges off the psyche. By no means is Canada a perfect system (don’t get me started), but it does impact how Canadians see ourselves and others vis-a-vis how Americans see themselves.

Americans have either a complex relationship with joy and fear, or a very immature one. Point of view is everything. They are both there in abundance. The switch can be flipped instantly.

But it would be nice if Canadians – especially Torontonians – learned how to socially relax a little bit more, discover the joy of chatting with a total stranger at a downtown cafe, have an actual opinion about something on occasion.

We are often understood by what we are not. By our negative space.

Americans are chatty. Canadians are not.

Canadians demure. Americans do not.

Somewhere in between these two poles…


September 13, 2017

_MG_5730Well is was a crazy summer of transferring the cafe to new operators, planning our wedding, organizing our move, moving to Chicago. Poor old Sisyphus was abandoned for great stretches of time. Necessarily abandoned but not forgotten. Many scribbles were collected with a view to fall reflections…

Here is a random assortment of ideas, thoughts, observations – read, overheard, dictated…gathered like bread crumbs over the summer…

  1. “What is Google, if not the suggestion that, in principle, there are no more questions?” Daniel Brandis
  2. “Meaning today has been reduced to regulating and securing.” Daniel Brandis
  3. “We live in the era of the growth of forgetfulness – from the openness of the Greek entering the world to an increasing forgetfulness, our increasing withdrawal from the world.” -Bertrand Russell
  4. 300568._UY630_SR1200,630_.jpg“This may be the most valuable act we can perform: to make peace with the only reality fate has given us.” -Guy Davenport
  5.  “English is a romance language the way a porpoise is a fish and a bat is a bird.” -Guy Davenport
  6. “Greek time is in the eye, anxious about transitions (beard, loss of boyish beauty). Hebrew time is in the ear (Hear, oh Israel!). What the Greek gods say does not make a body of quotations, they give no laws, no wisdom. But what they look like is of great and constant importance. Yahweh, invisible, is utterly different.” – Guy Davenport
  7. How much of the world one sees in one’s lifetime will depend entirely on what one can tolerate in public washrooms. -based on personal experience
  8. IMG_8144.jpg
  9. (July) The sun, by 7pm is in the western sky. This being mid-summer it won’t set until well after 9. I am sitting on the porch, reading, facing the sun. I hear the horses before I see them, galloping into my view stage right, exiting stage left, circling at the creek and then accelerating back up the length of the field – snorting and playing with each other as they go. The dog jumps from his slumber under my chair and happily takes off after them, eager to join the fun.
  10. (8.a.) “Being with animals, you feel something grander.” -Claire Matin

taking the 18 bus…

September 12, 2017

Went down to the Third World today – otherwise known here as south Chicago – on the hunt for a warehouse-sized used office furniture store located at Cicero and Roosevelt.

Now Cicero and Roosevelt is no ghetto, it’s merely a hard-earned working class neighborhood – but our bus took us through about five straight kilometers of ghetto getting there.

It’s unbelievable, almost unfathomable, that north Chicago and south Chicago can both say they are Chicago.

And relative to further south and west in Chicago, where we were today is considered not all that bad. We were only in the north-end of the south-side. There are areas further south that are strictly no-go zones, even in the middle of the day.

Funny how all the little privileges we take for granted in the north end are absent in the south.

Up here we are surrounded by beautifully manicured parks – some more than 100 acres in size. Every two weeks the city posts flyers on our street to remind us that the street cleaner will be coming through in a few days so park your car somewhere else between 9am and 2pm. Practically every street up here is tree canopied, clean, filled with pedestrians and restaurants and businesses of all kinds. Welcome to Pleasantville!

Do the street cleaners not work in the south end of the city?Are there no maintenance people to clean the garbage, trim the hedges, cut the grass? Seriously!?

We saw no park today where we were in the south end. Young Black men stood on street corners, their eyes hard, pissed at the world for giving them the short straw, uneducated and unemployable, hustling, waiting for Godot.

Even the subway line out to Cicero has the oldest shittiest cars in the system. Seriously? Our red north line has the poshest cleanest newest cars in the entire system. The ghettos get the 40-yr-old rattlers and the Cicero subway station looked like it was transplanted here from some impoverished neighborhood in India. The entire structure looked like it was ready to crumble into dust at any moment.

Should I mention that we were the only white people on the bus today? In the entire neighborhood? Or is this so obvious when you are talking about these neighborhoods in big American cities that it’s not worth mentioning.

Black cyclists in Chicago are three times more likely to be stopped by the police than their white counterpart peddlers. Nine times more likely to be charged with a cycling infraction. Black youth in Chicago are 15 times more likely to be charged for possessing marijuana than white youth. Black men 5 times more likely to be stopped while driving a car. Somewhere on Facebook someone is about to post another video of an unarmed Black man being shot by the cops somewhere in America.

But we know all of this already. Race and class dispossession are the open raw wounds that rips America’s soul.

Up here the $5 indi-cafe lattes flow, young men play football in the park, students go about the business of going to one of the numerous neighborhood universities – everyone healthy, as if dipped in yogurt.

And yet, on the bus, or on the street, when we needed help as to where we should get off, how to get to the subway for the trip back, all we got was that friendly American charm and chatter we find (as Canadians) so disarming.


September 10, 2017

I thought it was a very neat hijacking of the dialectic when it was decided that North Americans – neither conservative or progressive – Jews and non-Jews alike – would be understood as to not have any opinion whatsoever on Israeli political affairs – not on internal politics, and most especially not on Israeli foreign affairs – because to have an opinion, or an idea, or even a concern, was in itself, inherently, anti-Semitic.

And at what point in our post-modern anti-colonial white guilt halcyon days of yore, did we agree to this idea that just because we want to call Israel on some of its bullshit – in the same way I want to call out America, or China, or Russia, or my own government – since when did I become anti-Semitic simply because I want to ask Israel “why”?

America – first week in…

September 2, 2017

fullsizeoutput_337Port Huron Customs Office: standing in line – bank style – when three customs officers check a camera screen above their heads and burst off through the back door, returning a couple of minutes later with a brown-skinned man who had made a run for it back to Canada. His wife and three children are pulled from the line behind us and all are taken into Interrogation Room #1.

Michigan Gas Station: two white police officers – the size the ex-NFL linebackers arrest a Black man in the gas station yard (reasons unknown). The one officer doesn’t like the Black man’s baseball cap so he removes it, checks the lining for contraband, and then throws it on the ground.

An old truck pulls up to the pump beside us. A middle aged man with no dental plan gets out and takes in the view like a bully who’s used to getting his way. The bumper sticker on his truck reads: “Guns Guts Glory. USA!”

Welcome to the freak show.

The gas in Michigan is about 60 cents per litre Canadian (when converted). But the interstate freeway in Michigan is mostly shite. County roads in Ontario are in better shape. Cheap gas. Pothole filled freeways.

NPR Radio (and American press in general – not including FOX News): The previous night to our arrival Trump gave a belligerent (some say fascist) speech in Arizona where he demonized for an hour both the mainstream press and cartel-linked Mexican immigrants who are all rapists and criminals. He threatens to shut down his own government if the new federal budget does not include start-up money ($2 billion) for his wall. Comparisons to early Hitler speeches fill the airwaves of NPR.

The next day Trump pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who the Arizona state courts had found to be in contempt for his refusal to follow court orders related to Arpaio’s on-going illegal harassment of Mexican immigrants, journalists who oppose him, and his treatment of people in the prison system. Arpaio is openly racist and proud of it.

Trump’s approval ratings fall to all-time lows.

North Chicago: We found an apartment on the edge of Little Mexico in Roger’s Park. The people are tremendously friendly and chatty. We can’t get out of the local market without the cashier telling us her life story. As former Torontonians it puts us on edge. We are too polite to say anything and just wait until she finishes her monologue.

IMG_8343We are reminded at the bank that guns are not allowed in the bank. If we bring a gun into the bank our account will be terminated immediately. There are no handgun signs on every restaurant and university campus we visit. Even the Women’s and Children First bookstore has a sign in the door. Very weird coming from Canada.

There are anti-hate lawn signs everywhere. Chicago has declared itself a sanctuary city and refuses to use its police force to do Trump’s anti-immigrant dirty work. Trump says the federal government will retaliate this fall with financial penalties to all sanctuary cities. So far federal money slated to buy new police cars has been cancelled. The mayor of Chicago has filed a law suit against the president for endangering the lives of Americans.

IMG_7795All the press – even the conservative press – are now on a Trump death watch. Every day there are articles about the imminent resignation of Trump. Vice-president Pence steps up his public speaking engagements – trying not to look like he is bailing on Trump, yet trying at the same time to look presidential.

The freak show continues…