March 31, 2012

Sarah laughs — and other human moments

The Bible is filled with people acting like people — such as Sarah playing the nosy snoop in Genesis. She and Abraham are an aged childless couple. Outside their tent, Abraham is entertaining a visitor, and Sarah can’t help but eavesdrop. The guest turns out to be God, and God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will conceive and raise a child. Sarah laughs. Of course, she laughs — at the sheer impossibility of the thing but, even more, at the joyful idea that, after so many decades of disappointment, their love will bring a child into the world. The Passion narrative in Mark’s gospel starts off with a similar moment. A woman takes a costly perfumed oil and pours it on the head of Jesus as an anointing. This irks some of the disciples. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?” they say. “It could have been sold for more than 300 days’ wages, and the money given to the poor.” That’s a very human reaction. But Jesus tells them to leave her be. “The poor you will always have with you,…but you will not always have me.” The irritable disciples and the nosy Sarah act the […]
March 27, 2012

Book review: “She’s on First” by Barbara Gregorich

Linda Sunshine plays shortstop for the Chicago Eagles, the first woman to become a major leaguer. Her manager, the star pitcher and some of her other teammates don’t like the idea. At all. Yet, for her — as for them — baseball is more than a living. It’s more than a game. “Ever since I can remember,” she tells sportswriter Neal Vanderlin, “I’ve wanted to be a baseball player.” So what does she like best about baseball? “Everything! The way it all fits together. You know — that the ball doesn’t score, people do. That the team with the ball can’t score, the team without the ball can. That there’s no time limit. That the diamonds and field and fences all fit together, and the runner’s speed and the fielder’s speed and the speed of the ball in flight.” In Barbara Gregorich’s “She’s on First,” Linda is the first woman to take the field as a player, but her rookie season is also a test. And, depending on how she does, other women may or may not have the chance to follow in her spike tracks. Sort of like a female Jackie Robinson. Indeed, when Al Mowerinski, the former Eagles […]
March 20, 2012

The impatience of Job

We talk about the “patience of Job,” and that makes him seem like a meek and mild fellow who heroically and stoically endures waves of misfortune from God and the devil. Don’t buy it. Job is a whiner, a complainer. “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?…I am filled with restlessness until the dawn…Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Or: “Woe is me.” The Book of Job is the story of his efforts to convince God that it just isn’t fair that he’s afflicted with so many miseries. His faith in the Lord never wavers, but he argues again and again that he doesn’t deserve the disasters, conflagrations and boils that have befallen him. Finally, Yahweh has had enough and, “out of the whirlwind,” says: Where were you when I founded the earth?… When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?…Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning?… Can you send the lightnings on their way, so that they say to you, “Here we are”?” And on and on and on. In other words: “I’m God. I see farther, deeper and more clearly than you.” […]
March 19, 2012

Book review” “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

A little before midnight on the last night of his life Timothy Marr, a linen draper of Radcliffe Highway, set about tidying up the shop, helped by the shop-boy James Gowen. So begins “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley, a thorough account and re-thinking of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, committed in London’s East End in December, 1811. The slayings are well-known to Britons, particularly Londoners, although less so to Americans. On Dec. 7, the 24-year-old clothing merchant was gruesomely murdered in his combination shop and home along with his wife Cecilia, their three-month old son Timothy and the young lad Gowen. Three of the victims were bludgeoned to death with a heavy long-handled iron hammer, a maul, found matted with blood, hair and brains in one of the rooms. The baby… Someone called out, “The child, where’s the child?” and there was a rush for the basement. There they found the child, still in its cradle, the side of its mouth laid open with a blow, the left side of the face battered, and the throat slit so that the head was almost severed from the body. The slayings and their brutality shocked […]
March 18, 2012

God’s phone number

Half a century ago, phone numbers had prefixes as well as numbers (such as ESterbrook 9-3392), and the Roman Catholic Mass was in Latin. “Dominus vobiscum,” the priest would say. “Et cum spiritu tuo,” the altar boys would respond. Each generation of Catholic boys and girls, moving through schools run by nuns in voluminous black (or brown, or even white) habits, would hear that prayer from the altar day in and day out, and make a joke of it. “What’s God’s phone number? “Etcumspiri-2-2-0.” (Giggle.) All that changed, of course, with the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Now the prayer is said in English. “God be with you.” “And with your spirit.” That’s probably an improvement. After all, wishing each other God’s presence and support is not a bad gift. And it’s a lot easier to understand in the vernacular. Patrick T. Reardon 3.18.12
March 15, 2012

Book review: “Houses and Homes – Exploring Their History” by Barbara J. Howe, Dolores A. Fleming, Emory L. Kemp and Ruth Ann Overbeck

Every once in a while, when I’m in the basement and can see the foundations of our two-flat, or rummage in a closet and notice a crack in the plaster in the corner, or sit at my computer and look at the wallpaper that previous owners put up in the room, I wonder about the history of my home. That history is the procession of people and families who lived here — in the second-floor apartment where we live, in the first-floor apartment which we rent to another family and in the basement where my wife has her office and I have my research files. It’s also the time-lapse photography of what, on our block, was built first and what came next. Did our two-flat stand here as a single structure at some point a century ago? Or was it among a handful of early structures? What was along our street before that four-story apartment building at the end of the block was erected, taking up three or four lots? I suspect many people have thoughts like these. Even if you are the first person to live in a structure, you probably wonder what was there before? A worker’s cottage? […]
March 10, 2012

Waiting for Alzheimer’s

The other day, I was talking with some friends about movies, and somehow the conversation got onto the film “Elf.” There was a point I wanted to make about the actor who played Will Farrell’s father in the movie, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name. I knew he’d played Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.” And Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song.” And Hugh Grant’s future father-in-law in “Mickey Blue Eyes.” But his name escaped me. I tried various mental tricks, such as running through the alphabet and trying out various first names, until finally after what seemed like a long time but was probably only — only? — 10 seconds I remembered he’s James Caan. If you’re over the age of 60, as I am, something like this has probably happened to you. And it’s probably happening with greater frequency. I see my friends stumbling over a recollection. And, more and more, I find myself groping for a memory. I tell them and I tell myself that these sorts of lapses are just part of getting older. With more than 60 years of events, numbers, people, interactions, books read, movies viewed, music listened to, baseball games […]
March 9, 2012

Lincoln, work and prayer

“Orare est laborare.” That’s the motto of the Benedictine order. It means: Working is praying. By most accounts, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t terribly interested in organized religion. But that’s not to say he wasn’t spiritual. As president, his work was his prayer. Lincoln rooted his policies in a faith in the idea of union and democracy, in a hope that the divisions of a bitter, brother-against-brother war could be healed, and in a charity that refused to see those in rebellion as anything other than fellow Americans. His speeches often rose to the level of civic prayer. At Gettysburg, he concluded his short remarks with words that redefined the national identity: It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Those words honored the […]
March 7, 2012

In Austin

I grew up in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. I am the oldest of 14 children, and one of my jobs, growing up, was to watch my younger sisters in the afternoon after school. We lived on the second floor of a two-flat at 135 N. Leamington Ave. on the same block as our parish church (St. Thomas Aquinas), our parish school and the convent where the nuns lived. It was a crowded apartment, as you might imagine, and “watching the kids” meant taking two or three of the youngest girls to Grandma’s apartment a couple blocks away for a visit. I alternated this job with my brother David. I was 11 or 12. He was a year younger. I did the job until I was 13 and away at high school — at a religious seminary that was a boarding school. My sister Mary Beth, a year younger than David, took my place. The main idea was to get the youngest kids out of the house to give Mom some breathing space. She didn’t drive, and Dad, a Chicago police officer, was often at work at odd hours during the day or sleeping to get […]
March 5, 2012

Book review: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach’s intention in “The Art of Fielding” seems to be to subvert the traditional sports story — boy of great talent hones his craft, reaches heights, stumbles but learns from his errors (sometimes, literally) to become a better player and man. Here, Henry Skirmshander is a brilliant, if light-hitting, high school shortstop who is spotted by Mike Schwartz and recruited for the Westish College baseball team. On campus, Schwartz, the team’s catcher and a year older than Henry, takes the willowy freshman under his wing. He teaches Henry how to train, bulks him up, sharpens his hitting and transforms him into the team’s leading batter, its field general and heart and soul. Henry’s skill is so prodigious that, as his name is being talked about for one of the high draft rounds, he is on the verge of breaking the college record for games without an error, long held by his boyhood idol Aparicio Rodriguez. Rodriguez is not only a Hall-of-Fame legend but also the author of “The Art of Fielding,” a compendium of savvy and sometimes gnomic advice about how to play baseball and live life the right way. So far so good, but, during the game in […]