February 23, 2016

Book review: “Manhole Covers,” text by Mimi Melnick, photographs by Robert A. Melnick

Manhole covers are beautiful. There, I’ve said it. Just give them a look. I mean, really look at them. You’ll agree. Take these six from Manhole Covers, the 1994 book by Mimi Melnick with photos by her husband Robert. Look at the one on the top right. It looks like a rose window on the front wall of a cathedral, doesn’t it? They were created out of the same spirit. Like the other five, this one was created to sit inside a rim in the pavement of a street or sidewalk as the door to a hole six to 18 feet deep, leading down to a sewer or maybe a clump of electrical wires or any of a variety of other underground systems that, out of sight, out of mind, serve the modern metropolis. These six covers, like all of their sort, had to fit snugly in their rims. They had to be easy for workers with the right tools to open. And they had to have some sort of height difference across their surface so that, originally, horses and, later, autos and other motorized vehicles wouldn’t slip and slide on their metal surface as if across a patch of […]
February 16, 2016

Meditation: Living life

In the eighth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah in the Bible, the Jewish people are celebrating a feast in which they are re-accepting God’s law and covenant. It is, they are told by Nehemiah and Ezra, a sacred day but not a somber one: Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep. Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. This all happened about 2,600 years ago, yet the message still reverberates today.   A covenant As God’s people, we have a covenant. And it requires us to keep each day holy which means to “Go, eat rich foods…” Which means to savor the abundance that God has provided us. In other words, to live life richly and vibrantly. But not selfishly. We are called to “allot portions” — to share our abundance with those in need. We don’t live life alone. We live it together.   Being holy This is what it means to be holy — to be as fully alive as possible: To smell the fragrances, aromas and, yes, odors of the world that […]
February 10, 2016

Book review: “Methuselah’s Children” by Robert A. Heinlein

In Methuselah’s Children, Robert A. Heinlein is all over the map — the celestial map. The novel starts on Earth, approaches the sun. hightails it to one Earth-like world with human-ish residents and then gets sent off careening through space to a second Earth-like world with a population of beings that seem pretty human but aren’t. Finally, it’s off to a third world, even more like Earth, and then the central character, the 200-plus-year-old Lazarus Long, decides to go off on an expedition to explore the Universe. It’s also all over the science fiction map in the sense that Heinlein envisions a cadre of long-lived humans who voluntarily breed with others like them to create families of people who can live, well, like Lazarus, 200 years and more. (He, though, is the oldest surviving family member.) He envisions controlled weather and a jury-rigged inertia-less space ship drive. He envisions a group soul and a civilization in which the members of a human-like race are the domesticated animals of another. In Methuselah’s Children, the story arc is so convoluted and the pages are filled with such a grab-bag of ideas that the novel is a mess. Yet, it’s a wonderful mess. […]
February 8, 2016

The last day and the first day

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 31, 2015 My brother David Michael died suddenly a few days before Thanksgiving, and I’m thinking a lot about him as this year comes to an end. The last day, December 31, is shaping up for me as a Day of the Dead, a day for looking back and remembering David and others I have lost over the past 365 days and before. Maybe a lot of people do this on this last day. Maybe it’s a human need to look back and ponder loss amid the pain of grief. David and I had known each other longer than anyone else alive. I’d known him all his life. I was 14 months old in January, 1951, when he was born. The two of us were followed by two brothers and ten sisters. Our parents, David and Audrey, raised the 14 of us as a tight, affectionate, inter-connected family. Both are gone now. Mom died in 1995, and Dad in 2003.   A family Christmas party We remain extremely close, probably closer now that we have to rely on each other than we were before. All of us live in the […]
February 4, 2016

Book review: “The Haymarket Conspiracy” by Timothy Messer-Kruse

In late April, 1885, Chicago’s small, tight, deeply committed group of anarchists marched to protest the opening of the new Board of Trade Building. Turned away by police, the group ended up hearing speeches nearby at the building in which the group’s newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung was housed. An undercover policeman, Thomas Treharn, made his way up to the paper’s editorial offices where he found several people, including editor August Spies two well-known anarchist speakers Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden. Someone asked Spies to show “the package” he had displayed a few days earlier, and, writes historian Timothy Messer-Kruse: Spies handed Parsons a foot-long tube with a fuse protruding from one end. Parsons boasted there was “enough there to blow up the building.” [Treharn] asked Parsons why he had not challenged the police barricades and later remembered Parson saying, “We’re not exactly prepared to-night…here is a thing I could knock a hundred [police] down with like tenpins.” A little more than a year later, a mile and a half away, near Haymarket Square, a similarly homemade bomb was thrown into the midst of nearly 200 policemen. They fell like tenpins.   Riot, tragedy or conspiracy? It’s been called the Haymarket Riot and […]
February 1, 2016

Book review: “Arabian Nights: Four Tales from A Thousand and One Nights,” art by Marc Chagall, text by Richard Francis Burton

It is not often that three works of art can be found in one volume. But that’s the case with Arabian Nights with art by Marc Chagall and text by Richard Francis Burton. As Norbert Nobis explains in an introduction, Arabian Nights, also called Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, is a collection of stories from a wide array of cultures, including Indian, Persian, Hebrew, Arabian, Syrian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian, “merged into a single work welded together by the Arabic language and the Islamic faith.” These stories — their number varies from edition to edition — are framed by a tale that starts and ends the work and starts and ends each “night.” This frame story involves a King who marries a succession of virgins. Each one comes to his bed on their wedding night and, in the morning, is executed. The reason: The King doesn’t want to be the victim of his wife’s infidelity. (This, by the way, is the sort of over-the-top, operatic, baroque thinking that’s on exhibit throughout Arabian Nights.) The latest of the King’s wives is Scheherazade, but she has a plan. When she comes to her wedding bed, she begins to tell the King […]