November 28, 2014

Thanks for things that go wrong — then right

During a softball game in the summer of 1981, a lively and otherwise intelligent redhead slid into first base and broke her leg. (Don’t ask.) Meanwhile, a tall and slightly older newspaper editor, after years of ignoring his health, began to have problems that led him to quit cigarettes, stop drinking coffee and lose 40 pounds. It was not a very delightful time for either of them. Yet, their temporary infirmities led them to the same religious retreat where they met. And Cathy and I have been together ever since. When it comes to Thanksgiving, the focus is usually on the blessings of life, the good things that we have and that we have experienced. Think of the table set for the holiday meal, with its savory turkey and all the luscious side dishes and diet-be-damned desserts. It’s a reminder that Thanksgiving is about a bountiful harvest. Think of the grace that’s said at the table. It’s about how good it is for family and friends to gather together in this way. It’s about the goodness of having a decent home, rewarding jobs and strong schools.   Things that go wrong But I’m here today to tell you that, when […]
November 17, 2014

Pickwick Lane and my mistakes

Ten years ago, I wrote a story in the Chicago Tribune about one of the oddest wrinkles in the Chicago cityscape — Pickwick Lane. It is a short, nine-foot-wide private alley, hidden in the heart of the Loop, and it dead-ends in a three-story building at 22 E. Jackson Blvd. With its cobblestone paving — at least, that’s the paving it had a decade ago — the byway looked more like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley than anything one would expect to find in present-day Chicago. In recent months, that three-story building, often vacant over the past half century, has been in the news, opening as an Asado Coffee Co. location. And, now, well, it’s time for me to set the record straight. In the years since I wrote my tiny 325-word story, I have come to realize that I made several errors. The main one is that the present building is NOT the original stable, and it is NOT a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.   The right story, as far as I can tell Here’s what’s I’ve come to find out through further research, and, as far as I know at the moment, this is accurate:
November 14, 2014

Book review: “Lust” by Simon Blackburn

Most of us find it uncomfortable to speak about lust. Philosopher Simon Blackburn is no exception, even though he lectured on the subject at the New York Public Library and expanded his remarks into a short, spritely book Lust, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press. In fact, Blackburn spends five of his book’s 133 pages, explaining why he shouldn’t have to take up the task, including his age (about 60 at the time), his being a male (in an era when women dominate gender discussions) and his British nationality. We English are renowned for our cold blood and temperate natures, and our stiff upper lips….Other nationalities are amazed that we English reproduce at all. One cannot imagine an Englishman lecturing on lust in France. Those sentences capture Blackburn’s witty, playful tone in Lust, and so does his discussion of the Cynics of ancient Greece who “thought too much song and dance was made about the whole thing.” Diogenes, one of the leading Cynics, argued that there was no good reason why shame should be attached to sex. Rising to the challenge, Diogenes’ pupil Crates and his wife Hipparchia are credibly reported to have copulated first on the steps of […]
November 13, 2014

Book review: “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff

A friend of mine is very big on stories having a beginning, a middle and an end. The 15 stories in The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff don’t fit that at all. Some have stutter-step endings that seem to go one way and then another and maybe a third, such as in “Casualty.” An American soldier in Vietnam is fatally wounded. A comrade grieves, or thinks he does. A nurse on a C141 med evac has trouble coping when she realizes the soldier she has been caring for is dead. During a lull later on she stopped and leaned her forehead against a porthole [in the airplane]. The sun was just above the horizon. The sky was clear, no clouds between her and the sea below, whole name she loved to hear the pilots say — the East China Sea. Through the crazed Plexiglas she could make out some small islands and the white glint of a ship in the apex of its wake. Someday she was going to take passage on one of those ships, by herself or maybe with some friends…When she closed her eyes she could see the whole thing, perfectly Many have endings that don’t […]
November 7, 2014

Book review: “Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom” by Sallie Tisdale

A confession: I read Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom because it was written by Sallie Tisdale. I know very little about Buddhism. I have been an admirer of Tisdale’s writing for more than a quarter of a century, ever since I wrote a review of her book Lot’s Wife: Salt and the Human Condition for the Chicago Tribune. That book, like most of her work, was, in essence, a book-long essay — in that case, about a common, everyday object that we don’t usually give much thought to. Others include The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food (2000) and Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex (1994). This book isn’t like those. This book is a sort of Buddhist version of the Lives of the Saints books that, as a Catholic, I’m very familiar with. It contains the thumbnail biographies of 60 or so important women in the history of Buddhism. Tisdale, who was training for the Buddhist priesthood when her book was published in 2006, writes that she has studied as much of the historical record as she could in order to write these profiles, but, often, much was […]
November 6, 2014

Book review: “Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages” by Neil Harris

Humans name their babies and their pets and their battleships. And their buildings. I’ve lived in Chicago buildings by the names of 135 N. Leamington Ave. and 7943 S. California Ave. and 1129 W. Wellington Ave. Addresses, after all, are simply another kind of name. We need to be able to tell one from another. Large buildings, though, are often given fancier names in addition to their street addresses, notes cultural historian Neil Harris in his delightfully eye-opening 1999 book Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages. In the case of office buildings, the name can testify to the size, wealth, and prestige of a major corporation. Speculative structures frequently entice major tenants by the promise of naming the new building after them. As a major space-user, the renting corporation reaps the additional publicity. The same principle is at work when the naming rights for a publicly financed sports stadium are sold. U.S. Cellular Field where the Chicago White Sox play baseball is an advertisement for a wireless telecommunications network — a corporation that was willing to pay $68 million to turn the baseball park into a kind of billboard for 20 years. The name given to a baby usually doesn’t have […]
November 4, 2014

Book review: “Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy” by Christopher Chandler

Christopher Chandler, a former journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times and WBBM-TV (Channel 2), was an important press aide for Harold Washington. He organized news conferences, planned media strategy and dealt directly with reporters and editors during Washington’s 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor and then during the initial two years of his tenure on the fifth floor of City Hall. Yet, in his memoir Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy, Chandler writes, “I only had one serious conversation about politics with Harold Washington. Following a news conference on the Southeast Side, as the two men waited for their ride back downtown, Washington asked Chandler who his favorite politician was. “Bobby Kennedy.” Washington was surprised. “I never understood the Kennedys,” he said. As for his own favorite politician, Washington named Paul Robeson, the athlete, singer, actor and political activist who, as it happened, was one of the heroes of Chandler’s mother.   Progressive Chandler, a white man, came from the sort of mid-20th century American family that described itself as progressive. His father, a clergyman, and the rest of his relatives were committed to the cause of civil rights. So committed, in fact, that, in April, 1968, his […]
November 2, 2014

Book review: “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” by James McPherson

In July, 1864, Gen. Jubal Early and his 15,000 Confederate troops were again raiding the North and threatening the federal capital of Washington, D.C. It was a maneuver aimed at forcing Gen. U.S. Grant to weaken his siege of the Southern capital of Richmond by rushing soldiers north. Grant sent some surplus troops, enough to block Early but only that. Abraham Lincoln asked him for more — not just to better protect Washington but even more to attempt to trap and “destroy the enemy’s force.” Grant complied. As the new units arrived, they immediately began skirmishing with Early’s men near Fort Stevens, north of the city, and Lincoln went to watch. The six-foot-four-inch president wearing his top hat made a large target as he peered over the parapet at enemy sharpshooters. As John Hay recorded the incident, “A soldier roughly ordered him to get down or he would have his head knocked off.” Tradition has it that the soldier was Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. And what he said was: “Get down, you fool!” In Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, James McPherson, one of the premier Civil War historians of […]
November 1, 2014

Voting for wonder

I vote for wonder. Amid the mudslinging of political campaigns, despite the reports of all that is going wrong across the world, I vote for joy and amazement at the richness of life. Many days, I see the sunshine strike the red bricks of the apartment building across the street, and it fills my day with beauty.  I am astonished at how green the grass is in my back yard after a rain. And I am touched by people.  Like the woman who, today, reached out to help an elderly man with a walker get off a bus.  Or the cop — I saw the TV report, and you probably did, too — who gave brand new boots to a homeless man. Yes, I know there is much hardship in the world.  I know there are people whose lives are disrupted by wars and epidemics and terror.  I know there are people who live with very little to eat.  I know there are fears of drought and violence, dread of oppression and plague. I don’t ignore these realities.  I recognize the need to face them and solve them to whatever extent is possible. But I will not let the evils […]